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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Are You in the Nose Bleed Section?

Years ago,  a very educated and prestigious writer recommended a novel to me. During our time together, he sounded so intelligent that I hung on every word, even though I didn't understand half of what he was telling me. I did a lot of nodding as my brain tried to decipher what the the heck he just said.

When the conversation ended, I went right out and bought the book and began reading it with much anticipation. After several hours of squinting, I finally had to admit to myself that the thing was over my head.

I'm sure it's a wonderful novel. I'm sure all the literati's would agree, but for me, I'll never know because I was so consumed with looking up words I'd never seen and rereading sentences, paragraphs and entire chapters again and again to make sense of them, that I was pulled out of the story, and ultimately decided it was a little more work than I was willing to put in.

As writers, we can mistake the use of complicated sentences and large snooty words as being synonymous with good writing. There are some literati elitists who think if a piece of work doesn’t make them crack open their dictionary at least a half dozen times a chapter, it’s simply not well done.

Let me try to put it into perspective.

Back in my previous life as a registered nurse, I would listen to doctors explain to patients a new diagnosis. Some of the docs would talk so far above their patient’s heads that when the MD would leave, the patient would ask me for a translation. It always amazed me. How could someone smart enough to have a medical degree not know that they weren’t speaking in a way that others understood?

I’ve seen many a distressed patient shocked to learn that the mumbo jumbo the doctor had just rattled to them actually meant that they had cancer, or that all those scary words she used actually meant that they had nothing but a mild infection that would go away on its own.  Writing can be a lot like that.

On the contrary, there were other doctors who would size up the patient, and speak to them in lay language, on their level. I learned pretty quickly that these were usually the smartest of the two groups of professionals.

Yes, we writers naturally have large vocabularies. Save it for Scrabble.

This isn't to say we dumb down our writing or only include words under five letters. I think most readers are intelligent people. Readers by nature, often are, but the more you strive to sound smart, the dumber it can come across.

In my humble opinion, good writing starts with being understandable. What’s the point in having something to say if no one understands you?

Gina Holmes is the President and founder of Novel Rocket and the bestselling and award-winning author of Crossing Oceans and Dry as Rain. She holds degrees in science and nursing and currently resides with her husband and children in southern Virginia. To learn more about her, visit


  1. I LOVE THIS POST! We can be intelligent without speaking/writing like lecturing professors. I'll never forget what I learned in News Writing class--when writing for newspapers, believe it or not, you're writing toward a FIFTH-grade reading level, which represents the majority of news readers. I was shocked, but took something away from that. If people can't understand your basic message, what's the point of your book? You're writing only for yourself, to make yourself look good. Totally agree, Gina.

  2. Thanks Heather. I had read somewhere that it was the 6th grade level (close enough) and that shocked the heck out of me. A few reviewers commented that Crossing Oceans was written on a 6th grade level. That was meant as a barb but I had to smile. Mission accomplished. :)

  3. I agree wholeheartedly. When find it necessary to look up a word on my Kindle, it takes me out of the story and I lose interest. If I'm reading a hard copy and have to go to the paper dictionary, or, that puts me farther away. If I have to do that more than once or twice, I wonder, "Who's this author trying to impress?" GOOD POST!

  4. How am I supposed to feel superior to others if I don't purposely speak insider jargon that the speakee can't possibly be aware of.

  5. Dayle, surely there's another way to feel superior. Perhaps you could buy yourself a top hat? Pat, thanks :)

  6. Amen! It's the story that matters, not the individual words that make that story up.

  7. I teach writing to food bloggers and what I always tell them is to stretch their vocabulary by reading...and then work this new vocabulary into their daily language until it is comfortable and natural. When they write it will then sound natural. Because it will be. And natural is usually easy to follow and understand. Once in a while I run across a food blog obviously written by someone who wants to sound "creative" or "poetic" or "writerly" but it sounds stilted, unnatural and affected. And just plain bad. Easy to tell that they do not speak this way in real life.

  8. I think that's good advice Jamie. I have to say I know some writers who naturally speak that way but they're still speaking and writing over most people's heads. It's not bad for folks to expand their vocabulary, but to understand that if people are having to stop and look up words, it gets old after a few.


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