Why would a writer or a reader not want to learn new words?

The pages of a dictionary partially in shadow

Learning new words can be like discovering a new tool that makes a tedious task simple, or tasting a delicious flavor never sampled before.

I love to learn new words. When I come across a new word I enjoy or relate to, I collect it in my writing notebook in One Note and when I update my website, mbercreations.com, I include a new word on my inspiration page. I follow a couple of great word blogs here on wordpress.Sesquiotica by James Harbeck and WordBowl by Ms. Charlie Schroder.

A new vocabulary writing exercise:

A while back, when I was reading House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, I collected many words and brought my finds to my writing group. We decided to do a writing exercise in which we incorporated our favorite new words from my list into a short piece of fiction. I had been mulling around an idea for a sci-fi story for a while and decided to use it for this exercise. Just for fun, I used all of the words from the list that I could and found some more to create a short beginning to that story. I really enjoyed the exercise, but my piece was most definitely over the top and I put it aside while working on other things.

Revision: Deciding what to keep and what to change.

Recently, I decided to revisit this story for a class assignment hoping to continue to develop it, perhaps finish it, during the class. I expected to simply go through the less familiar words and replace them, but a number of them turned out to be the strongest choice. I didn’t find better words than tessellated and protean to describe parts of my monster rising from the sea and tenebrific truly describes the quality of its shadow. So some of the words I learned from the exercise stayed, and in my opinion began to define the voice of the narrator.

Disappointing feedback gets me thinking.

Imagine my disappointment when the feedback from my peers (three reviews) came to one consensus: they did not appreciate my word choice. The most complimentary said the words were too “technical” and another stated he did not like to look things up in a dictionary while reading. If not while reading, when?

The course is online. The readers are online while reading. How hard is it to split-screen with dictionary.com? Learning new words is easier than ever and people taking a writing class acted as if using a word that was unknown to them was some sort of personal affront. Pareidolia is a great word. If I saw it for the first time, I would be excited to look it up.

The words I used are not archaic or abandoned. They have unique meanings that clearly state what I mean to say.  Should a writer be expected to limit her vocabulary? Why shouldn’t she expect her readers to rise to the challenge? Why would a writer limit his joy of language in fear that his reader doesn’t know the same words he does and won’t pick up a dictionary?

How could anyone who wants to write fiction not want to explore every word and its many uses? Isn’t limiting one’s vocabulary to fit an imagined understanding, condemning readers to a  truncated experience? Isn’t it wiser to assume a love of language and use all of the tools and weapons at hand?

Finding the Balance: Critique and Creativity

singing or bird watching
singing or bird watching

Balance critique with things you love to do.

In a way I’m lucky. I grew up in a hyper-critical environment and still chose to perform in public. However, criticism gets old and it sticks in the psyche more than praise, which, sadly, is part of human nature. To be a writer, especially in the world of anonymous online comments, we have to prepare for the worst of criticisms. I don’t have a television that works for anything but being a screen for a DVD player, but I have found, “celebrities read mean tweets” online and find it quite enlightening. I also enjoy “@ midnight” as a glimpse into critique that is hilarious.

So, how do we prepare ourselves, or at least find enough balance in our own lives to combat the constant negative responses that, for no apparent reason, go along with creative effort? We find our joy. What I mean is, balance the amount of time that you purposely spend critiquing your work and others’ with the same amount of time writing something that makes you happy, or, engaging with friends and not talking about writing, or bragging about your work if that makes you happy. An artist needs both feedback and free creation, or love becomes a job.

I am also very lucky because when I wanted a group of writers to work with, I found two great people who balance me out. Finding the right critique group is so important. Don’t let yourself get desperate to find collaborators, or think that more opinions are better. The right people are patient and understand that writing is an art, and a craft. It takes daily effort, but also time for thought. Art often comes upon a person and takes time to control. A good critique group needs people who are comfortable and trusting, but always want to push harder and learn something new. A good critique group is never complacent.

Critique, sadly is part of everything a human does. Why? Because for some reason, as entities on earth, we have the initiative to improve ourselves. There are plenty of theories and beliefs on this topic, but self-improvement is a consensus. Being part of a critique group prepares a writer in many ways for the world of criticisms to come after the work is done. Healthy critique is three fold: being open to critique, being willing to take critique, and giving useful critiques. None of this is easy, or innate. It takes time, patience, learning, trust and skill.

First – Being open to critique: This is not easy. It means you are willing to change. It means you are willing to hear that your work is not perfect, that it needs changing based on other people’s opinions. Sometimes, some of your work will never get to this step and you need to really ask yourself if you want to try something you wrote that you don’t really care about (like that exists) and see if you’re ready. If you get mean to the people in your critique group because they thought you could use a comma before “but”, you might not be ready.

Second –Willing to take critique: I have plenty of pages from my critique group that are full of copious notes, but until I am willing to change, I will repeat myself. I didn’t like learning that I had a “he, she, I” problem. That meant I wasn’t perfect and I had to research sentence structures and change! So I did, but it was not easy. I still have issues with “read it out loud, you’ll figure it out”, because other people think if I just read something out loud, I’ll figure out why my sentences are clunky, to them. They have yet to pick up on the fact that I speak that way. Eventually my voice will be its own clunky-graceful self, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to do the work. Every critique asked for should be taken seriously and that is the whole point of being willing to take critique. If you’re not willing to listen and try to see the other point of view, even (and especially) if you think you know better, then you are not ready for a critique group.

Third – Critiquing: This is the hardest. I was quite uncomfortable with critique as a practice when my group first started and that is a good place to start. In order to critique people who are working in the same manner that you are, who spend so much time and energy putting their words together to tell stories and trying in every way they can to get their voices heard, those are the people who need as much support as criticism. Honesty is the hardest medicine to administer, but honesty is expected and wanted.

So how do you give a good critique? The answer is it takes time. No matter what you do, find something you honestly like about the writing, and start with that. Then make sure any grammatical corrections you address are based on fact, not opinion. When addressing any content issues, make sure to acknowledge that the work is not your own and any changes you recommend are your opinion offered with the best of intentions.

With all of that in mind, get your favorite activities ready, because creating a balance is the other half of the work. And remember, reading is part of the work of a writer, so unless the book you’re reading makes you lose yourself in happiness and you aren’t dissecting every other sentence, it doesn’t count.