The next 50 years of my life were dependent upon the word choices I was making on that day back in 2002. I was working on my application essay to the Graduate School of Education at Penn State University and the pressure was on.
Staring at the black letters on the white computer screen, the cursor seemed to be blinking at me as my mother used to when she asked me to choose whether I wanted to empty the dishwasher or sweep the kitchen floor. I didn’t have the answer she wanted.
When writing that essay, I didn’t have the word I wanted.
My essay was almost finished, but it just didn’t feel right. The wording was, well… it was blah. Specifically, I wasn’t happy with my use of the word “conceited”. It felt colloquial and needed a bit more panache. I keyed in what has since become my favorite MS Word writing shortcut — Shift+F7. When my thesaurus popped up, I skimmed the list of words until I arrived on one that appeared to be perfect. Vainglorious. I’d never heard the word before, but it defined itself. I changed my sentence to the following — “I’m concerned as I write this essay that I might come across as vainglorious.”
As I let that scenario sink in today, I recognize it’s saturated with irony. My ego needed a better word than conceited to prove the depth of my humility.
I stuck with vainglorious and sent it off to my favorite editor — mom — and soon learned I’d taught her a new word. Yes, mom! Your oldest son is so smart! Having received her edits and the accompanying shot of dopamine, I submitted my application.
Sometime later I received a letter of acceptance from Penn State. It was a good feeling. I don’t know if my use of the word vainglorious was what pushed me over the top. Likely not. But word choice is important. I’ve come to understand it’s heavily dependent on the situation.
When writing the application for grad school I was concerned with what my reader believed about my level of intellect. When I blog or write story, I’m far less concerned with what my reader believes about my intellectual ability. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about how smart my audience thinks I am.
I’m far more concerned that they continue to read what I’ve written.
Unwritten rule #1: It’s more important to care for my reader’s desire or ability to stick with my story than it is to impress my reader with how smart I am.
I’m trying to imagine a scenario other than the one I described above where I would use the word vainglorious. Nothing comes to mind. While there are bigger, fancier words I can use to express just about anything, doing so can be detrimental to my goal of keeping my readers’ eyes on my work. So if I use the thesaurus to find a different word it’s because I want a better, less lazy word. It’s not because I want to wow my reader with how impressive my knowledge of words is. Big, fancy words can get in the way of my message.
Take, for instance, my penchant for reading about the history of Christianity. (Stop rolling your eyes. I come from a long line of clergy and can’t help myself!) Too often the books or articles I read are so packed with religious jargon that I can barely slog through it. I get frustrated having to google words just so I can follow whatever I’m reading. Was the author writing this to help me understand a topic, or were they writing to impress their colleagues, or perhaps even God him or herself?
I want my readers to engage with my work. If my writing gives them a Popsicle-headache, there’s no way that will happen. I want them to know they’re welcome here, and their desire to have an easy reading experience trumps my desire to come across as an intellectual. After all, their readership in the present is necessary to sustain my authorship in the future.
Unwritten rule #2: Overuse of profanity will impair a writer’s ability to engage with their reader.
I’m not opposed to the use of profanity and will even use it in my writing myself, but there are two reasons I do so sparingly.
First, using too much profanity takes away from the strength of what is being expressed. There’s a reason profanity is referred to as strong language. When I use it when I write, I do so with the implicit desire to express I’m feeling strongly about the particular point I am trying to make. If I use it over and over and over again, I risk my reader wondering if I have a point, or if I really just wanted to vent my frustration to the world. Or worse, whether I have a limited ability to find strong words to communicate my thoughts.
Second, the use of profanity will cut out a segment of the population who have no capacity to appreciate the purpose of strong language.
Some people don’t swear. They don’t like it and they don’t think intelligent people do either. I grew up in this environment. It was as if swearing was akin to murder. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but not much.
In one of my Facebook statuses not too long ago, I quoted a coworker who used the word “shit.” It was a straight up quote. They weren’t even my words.
It didn’t matter.
Not long after the post I ran into a woman who I knew from my years growing up in my church. She took one look at me and said, “I saw you use that dirty word on Facebook last week!” She was kidding/not kidding with an emphasis on the not kidding.
Granted, it was only a Facebook status, but I lost her at the word shit. More importantly, she totally missed the point of what I wanted to say. As a writer I have to make a decision about what is more important- my need to use strong language or my desire to be read by people who don’t appreciate it.
I’m as frustrated as the next guy by people who get all judge-y about profanity, but if I want to include as many people as possible in my audience I’ll need to pander a bit to my potential audience’s desire for profanity-free writing. This is especially true for me given that I know many reading my work will tune me out if I use “dirty words.” It may be their problem, but it’s one I have to learn to deal with if I want to influence them in any way through my writing. Frankly, some of those people who don’t like profanity are the very people I’m trying to influence.
All this to say, it’s fine to swear, just be intentional about it, and know you’ll lose some of your audience if you do. It’s up to you.
(There is an obvious caveat when it comes to profanity- fiction writing. Your characters need to talk like they talk. Be their voice, not their censor.)
There are many reasons word choice is important. Caring for your reader should be at the top of the list. Don’t let your need to feel smart or edgy get in the way of growing your readership.
By the way, I didn’t end up attending Penn State. As it turns out, my word choice had no effect on my next 50 years. Other choices did, however. I wrote about some choices I had to make before I could get paid to be a writer. No profanity in that one.