Sarah Bernhardt (died 1923) was a French stage actress remembered not for famous quotes, but for her sterling, riveting performances that often brought audiences to tears. It’s taken out of context, but one of her lines that caught my eye is: “Your words are my food.” For an author the question is: what am I feeding people?
One can find an abundance of online encouragement for withholding words. Will Rogers, for instance: “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” And, indeed, there are times when the counsel to silence is wisely heeded. But human beings are a species of words, and the key decisions are which ones to use and when to use them.
The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words. For a writer it’s akin to bringing a starving person to a world-class smorgasbord. Crafting well-formed and interesting sentences is intrinsic to the writer’s task, and so is the choice of vocabulary. My encouragement is two-fold.
Tap into the richness of language possibilities. In Chapter 22 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe writes: “The style of the letter was decidedly concise and terse; but Tom thought it the most wonderful specimen of composition that had appeared in modern times.” Not only is that a good sentence, but the content is worthy of any author’s contemplation. Be creative with vocabulary and do not fear that some readers might not understand a word choice. If it’s a good one, use it . . . and the reader can look it up.
But . . . do not overdo it. Using fancy words just to be fancy can lead to reader frustration. Appropriate use of words for variety, spice, and elucidation is good. Judicious application of vocabulary will enhance a manuscript so that the writer will not have to eat one’s words.