Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Line Between Dumbing Down And Baffling Readers

Readers are at once intelligent but can also be surprisingly ignorant.  I know, I speak as one.  I feel a warm glow when I get some reference, but also become furious when some word I don't know causes a hiccup in my reading.  As a writer, I want to write so that lots of people understand what I'm writing, but I also don't want to use only the simplest of language. Where is the line between dumbing down and baffling the reader?

The answer is in the context.  If you use an unusual word, the context should make it clear what that word means.  I used quite a few Italian words in A Single to Rome:

'Ecco, Carciofi all Guidia.' Teresa placed a steaming dish on the centre of the table, a tumbled mass of golden brown artichokes.  Natalie inhaled deeply; the 'benvenuto a Roma' evening for Guy smelled delicious. 'Nothing but Roman specialities.  Eat, eat,' Teresa said, ladling out the artichokes onto a plate and passing it to Guy, the guest of honour.  She prepared a plate for Natalie.  'This is a traditional dish of the Ghetto,' she said, passing the plate to her.

Hopefully the reader has worked out that Carciofi are artichokes in Italian.  All Guidia is Jewish style, which hopefully the reader guesses from the reference to the Ghetto.  Benvenuto a Roma is explained earlier in the story, but I suspect most people could work it out from the context, especially as benvenuto is similar to the French for welcome (bienvenue). The next excample is from Another Woman's Husband (NB Lily is Martin's daughter).

Martin rolled towards her, the contours of his face catching escaped light from the street lamp outside.  He looked young, his face blurred with sleep and, in the planes and angles of his bone structure, Becca caught sight of Lily underneath, like a palimpsest of the two people who meant the most to her. 

A palimpsest is a manuscript which has been written on several times.  I accept you wouldn't get that if you didn't know it, but I hope the idea of layers is present.   So long as the context makes the meaning clear, there shouldn't be the hiccup in understanding that draws the reader out of the story. Therefore, you need neither dumb down nor baffle the reader but write exactly what you want to write.


Tasha Harrison said...

Thanks for an interesting blog piece. It's a good topic choice. A year or so ago, I read We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, and I actually had to install the dictionary next to my bed as I was coming across far too many words I didn't know the meaning of. I felt quite inadequate and nearly gave up on the book after a few chapters. But I kept going and either the language mellowed out or I had increased my vocabulary to such an extent that I no longer needed the dictionary!
As a writer myself, I find it frustrating when I come across words I don't know. I feel as if I ought to know them, and how is it that I've never come across them before? Perhaps I spent my teenage years reading too many bonkbusters and not enough English classics…
But anyway, thanks for a great post and for my latest word: palimpsest. Will test my husband on that one later!

Giles Diggle said...

Good post Sarah. I think one of the things is to be consistent throughout the book, so the reader adjusts to the demands of the text without too many problems.

As a style guide, and I'm not talking about what to wear :-), I always refer back to F Scott Fitzgerald's, "The Great Gatsby." Complexity expressed with an elegant simplicity.

Liz Fielding said...

I love picking up new things, new words from books. Like you I read widely as a child and teenager (never stopped actually) and so few words totally baffle me. I'd hate to stop learning, though.

I do work hard, to make the context clear and - again like you - wrote a book with some Italian in it recently. One reader commented to me, how well I'd made the meaning clear.

Well, yes. No point in dumping in Italian phrases if the reader doesn't know what they mean. My aim is to entertain, not baffle. :)

Oh, and I've seen patterns for Afghans in American magazines that sound exactly like you described!

Sarah Duncan said...

That's interesting Tasha, about adapting to a writer's language. I read a lot more bonkbusters than I read the classics too. Palimpsest is such a great word - one that I'd gaily read for ages without actually looking up the meaning of.

Giles, you're so right about being consistent, which helps a reader to adapt. I think Gatsby is a pretty much perfect novel too.

Liz, spot on as usual - it's meant to entertain, not baffle. And thank you for the info on Afghans!