Careful, Your Frasier Crane Is Showing: Using Big Words In Writing When Smaller Ones Will Do

“It seems to be a pattern that if there is a normal word and an unconventional word, you pick the unconventional one. Sometimes that puts another speed bump in the reading. Like you are just finding all the ‘big’ words to show off.”—a beta reader

 

Ouch.

The above quote comes courtesy of one of my beta readers last year. The comment took me by surprise, not because I didn’t welcome feedback—I did. But because I didn’t consider the chosen word, which was “fugue,” to be big or unconventional. I considered it completely normal.

So that’s when it dawned on me:

I’m a Frasier Crane.

Frasier_Crane_Shrink_Wrap_radio_station_KACL 2

Original image from Wikipedia

Why?

Big words fly out of my mouth like bats fly out of a cave. Toss me an “arduous” or a “superfluous,” and I’ll take it. But I assure you, arrogance and pomposity are not to blame. Medical training is.

Shortly after med students flock the university halls, a complex lexicon takes over. Soon we’re using words like involute and atrophy, viscous and sanguineous, idiopathic and efficacious, emesis and tussis.

Of course, we also use words like poop and booger, but that’s immaterial. Sorry, extraneous. Sorry, beside the point.

What I’m trying to say is these words become part of our vocabulary even outside the medical venue. Sorry, environment. Sorry, home.

I’m sure the same happens to you. Whether you’re a mechanic or teacher, lawyer or landscaper, hair stylist or information technologist, your professional background gives you your own lingo.

But for those of us who write, those unconventional words can find their way into our fiction and slow down our readers.

And ain’t nobody got time for that.

My mother's cat. They don't call her Diva for nothing...

My mother’s cat. She’s not named Diva for nothing…

So what did I do?

Upon my beta reader’s discerning observation—sorry, astute; sorry smart—I removed the offending words. Or so I thought.

Recently, after months of distance, I read through my “polished” manuscript again. This time around, I found a few more words that took me out of the story, just as my keen beta reader had observed.

So I deleted those lingerers. (Except for “fugue.” That stayed in.)

That’s not to say no Frasier Crane words remain. In fact, there are plenty. But hopefully I’ve limited them to the appropriate context. For example, my nurse protagonist making medically related points or my lawyer strutting his stuff. But for the average, everyday narrative, I tried to kick them to the curb.

But indubitably I missed a few.

After all, Frasier Crane is never far away.

Are you the type of reader (or writer) who thinks big words need to go? Or do you enjoy learning some new vocabulary while you read, as long as it’s sprinkled and not doused?

*     *     *

Rubin4Carrie Rubin is the author of The Seneca Scourgea medical thriller. For full bio, click here.   

299 Responses to “Careful, Your Frasier Crane Is Showing: Using Big Words In Writing When Smaller Ones Will Do”

  1. hilarycustancegreen

    Barbara sent me here. Hmm, big subject, I suppose it depends on the who you are writing for – reader or writer (nothing wrong with either). Genre is a sort of iron lung and once you are in it you discard its rules at your peril. I have struggled, over the course of three novels, to get this balancing act right. Even as I attempt to assemble inchoate thoughts on the subject, I am tangled in words. The word that emerges is flow; without it your readers get a bumpy ride.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I agree–it often comes down to flow, especially with faster paced thrillers like I write. (Or at least I hope they’re fast-paced…) That’s why beta readers are so important. This one noticed things that weren’t even on my radar.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Like

  2. Tracy Lee Karner

    Good question, Carrie. (Jennifer sent me over). My answer: I think there are two kinds of readers–those who read primarily for “story” (plot) and they are the majority; and those who read because they love words (and they are a tiny minority–the folks who also tend to read and write poetry).

    Me? I get bored if the language — the word choice — isn’t interesting, musical, and precise.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      I think that’s a great way to look at it. I tend to read mostly for plot, but I love beautiful sentences too. The best books are those that combine both. Well, for me anyway. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Debi

    Love the commentary here, for myself a smattering of words throughout that cause one to reach for the dictionary is not just acceptable, it is desirable, for a tad of expansion of readers’ vocabularies is a worthwhile gain. I created pencil puzzles and word games for Dell Crossword Puzzle magazines for over 24 years, and I do have to say that most of those returned to me for changes were because the words were too difficult!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      What a great job that must’ve been! Bet you’re a crossword puzzle wizard. Hopefully your friends and family know better than to take you on. 😉

      I agree–I enjoy learning new words. And with e-readers, it’s very simple to look up a meaning. Just highlight the word.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. dianasschwenk

    I come here via Jennifer today and so glad she featured you in her Friday Bouquet!

    I write copy for fundraising and community engagement. I use simple words. Short sentences. And employ a conversational style. I never want someone to be confused about the message I’m trying to convey, because I want them to donate and get involved. I do this all while breaking many traditional writing rules! ❤

    So if you're a Frasier Crane, does that make me a Homer Simpson?
    Diana xo

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Haha, well, I guess I can be a Homer Simpson too. In public health, the message must be kept simple, similar to the messages you write. But I have to work to keep those Frasier words out!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Rajagopal

    Hi Carrie, nice to be in your site, thanks to common friend, Jennifer. As to the debate on usage of big and bombastic words, it is our own creation; for there is no such thing as big and small words, only appropriate and inappropriate usage. There are no two words in the English language with the same meaning, similar may be, but not exactly the same, as it will differ in shades of meaning. For example, the words ‘debris’ and ‘detritus’ may both be similar in their meaning of ‘anything that is left over’ or ‘rubbish’, but they have different shades of meaning; a good vocabulary with a command of the language is what enables powerful communication by means of precise usage of words, in much the same way as a rich person with a lavish wardrobe has access to the most appropriate costume to match an occasion, whereas a poor guy has perforce to make do with what is available. Trust this clarifies…best wishes… Raj.

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    • Carrie Rubin

      “there is no such thing as big and small words, only appropriate and inappropriate usage.”—I love that, and I think it’s spot on. Sometimes the ‘smaller’ word is appropriate; sometimes it’s not.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and for stopping by. Much appreciated!

      Like

  6. George

    I like to see those words sprinkled in. It makes for easier reading but gives you a opportunity to earn some new vocabulary at the same time. If I’m reading something that causes me to go to the dictionary every few lines or pages, I have a tendency to lose interests.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I agree–having to repeatedly look things up is distracting and takes away from the enjoyment. But learning a few new words is always a bonus. Plus, maybe we’ll remember them for the next book. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Like

  7. Silver in the Barn

    Hi Carrie, do you remember roughly the sentence in which you used “fugue?” I’m writing a post )nowhere near being ready to post) about this subject and would love to include this if you don’t mind.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I actually used it twice. (My bad.) The first was here, in reference to rain: “The rhythmic hammering of the windows put Sue in a sleepy but restless fugue.”—I ended up changing the ‘fugue’ here to ‘state’ because I realized that worked just as well (and this was the one the beta reader referenced). But I kept it in the other place where I used it, because no other word fit what I wanted to say: “In her dizzy fugue, she heard Connie crying and Dawn yelling, ‘Please, you have to let me help him. He’s bleeding.'”

      Hope that helps. Have fun with your post!

      Like

  8. jeanjames

    I once used the word occluded on a friend of mine, and he gave me such a hard time, lol. What can I say I was working in the cardiac ICU at the time! It came out so naturally for me.

    Like

  9. benzeknees

    I feel for you Carrie! My hubby is always telling me the same thing! “What does that mean?” I hear from him constantly. I must be a Frasier Crane too! I have a very large vocabulary with a slight slant toward English lexicon because I was raised in a very English family. Pram, spanner, etc. were words used quite often in my home. As far as my vocabulary – I started reading early & never stopped. I read voraciously because my home was not a wonderful place to be, but the worlds in my books were safe when home was not.
    As far as technical vocabulary though, I just finished a book where the protagonist was a gambler & there was just way too much information about how to figure odds & gamble. It took me right out of the story & I found myself skipping paragraphs to get back to the story line.
    Now this has been pointed out to me I’ll need to be more careful in my writing. Thanks for the tip!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Your comment wonderfully reflects why we need to be careful with our written words. Though people with a great vocabulary won’t have trouble understanding the prose, if we dive too deeply into jargon talk, they might. We have to make sure we define these words in context and not overdo it. Not always an easy task!

      Thanks for weighing in. 🙂

      Like

  10. RobinLK

    Oh, Carrie! You hit a hot spot with me on this one!!! I LOVE words…. big ones, small ones, colorful and melodic ones, too.

    As a seasoned educator (ummmm….. does one prefer ‘teacher’?), more specifically, a reading specialist, words are a natural part of my world, sprinkled with plenty o’ jargon, but as an avid reader and writer, I find words just FUN. 😊

    I’m also a firm believer in audience, too, and while my first reaction to your beta reader’s feedback was, “What a jerk!” – with more reflection (and your thoughts), I see his/her point. There’s a time & place for every word. Period.

    As writers, we know our audience is diverse – in thinking, in opinions, in interests, and in literacy levels. For example, while I’m fairly well educated (advanced degree) and read widely (mostly nonfiction), I do want the language to match the task. My expectation: Pleasure reading should allow me to read with little empediment, while technical reading will require more language knowledge/skills/investment to the task.

    Whether it’s poop, fecal matter, or excrement, the character relieved him/herself, right?? 😉

    Write on, my friend, write on!!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Ha, great comment. You tap on a good point about audience. It mostly comes down to that. Readers of medical thrillers like I write are going to expect some medical jargon, but they probably don’t want the rest of the narrative laden with big words. The tough part is when we don’t recognize it is an unconventional word (like ‘fugue’). That’s where beta readers are invaluable. And this beta reader was one of my best. He gave it to me straight and that’s what I wanted. Doesn’t mean I made all the changes, but I took his words to heart. I hope to be able to use him again down the road. He’s actually super awesome and a really nice guy!

      Liked by 1 person

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