More Minimalistic Prose

by Dunn

Question: I was reading on another blog about how writer should try to use words with Anglo Saxon roots as opposed to Latinate roots. They claim that the Latin derived words can cause writing to be "stuffy" and even pretentious. They say that the current trend is toward more minimalistic prose. While I definitely feel that too many polysyllabic words, especially in close proximity to one another, can be a problem, I still think Latinate words like magnificent, suicide, ethereal, eternal, etc. should not necessarily be discarded. What's your opinion? Do most readers prefer more simplistic writing?

Answer: You have to know who your audience is.

Literary fiction, for example, is often read by people who place more value on a beautiful prose style. They are often (though not always) more educated, because taking university level literature courses tends to nurture one's taste for literary style. Consequently they have bigger vocabularies and are used to reading more difficult works (such as articles in academic or scientific journals). There are exceptions, of course. Heller or Hemmingway's prose is pretty simple. But for a literary audience, I wouldn't give a second thought about latinate words.

On the other hand, if you are writing a hard-boiled detective story, you want to use a simpler vocabulary and shorter sentences. Readers of this genre want a style that does not distract them from the action. That doesn't mean you can't be poetic at times, but even your poetry will be punchier.

In books aimed at a general audience, the best style is one that is mostly invisible. While you must not talk down to your reader, you want a style that doesn't call too much attention to itself or place as many demands on the reader as a literary style would.

The rule of thumb is that the more you make your readers work, the more readers you will lose. Long sentences with many polysyllabic words clustered together can make your prose feel like a chore to get through for even an advanced reader. A general audience can take long complex sentences and words, provided they are not used excessively, but shorter sentences and words make lighter work of the text and let the reader focus on the story and characters.

That principle, naturally, goes double for books aimed at children or young teens.

The other thing to consider, if you're writing in first person, is whether your vocabulary and sentence structure fit the voice of the narrator. Naturally, a judge will tell his story in a different style than an average high school cheerleader (no offense to cheerleaders) and use quite a different vocabulary and idiom.

The best thing to do, if you're in doubt, is to take a look at some bestselling or acclaimed books in your genre. Pay attention to the complexity of the style and the level of vocabulary used by their authors. There's always plenty of room for variation and individuality, but this should give you a sense of the broad parameters.

Comments for More Minimalistic Prose

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Oct 21, 2014
by: Dunn

I really appreciate the clarification. Good stuff!

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