One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.
— Stephen King (in On Writing)
If you read my blog fairly regularly, you will already know I am a huge fan of Stephen King — not so much of his fiction (because of the scary genre thing) but of his words of wisdom on the actual writing process.
The first time I listened to someone else share their writing during my first ‘writing course’, I became very self-conscious about my own writing.
This person, who I now count as one of my best ‘writerly friends’ and attend a weekly writing group with (along with our amazing mentor), has the ability to use long, descriptive vocabulary and luscious sentences that just paint the scene perfectly.
My writing, on the other hand, tends towards the short and choppy and, for the most part, steers clear of long words.
So, when I heard her read out a section of her novel, I felt like a poor writer. Long words versus short words … skilled writer versus rank amateur.
Well … no.
It has taken me several years to realise the difference between us is not in skill, but in style. I love reading and listening to her writing, but I do not and can not write that way — it isn’t me, but that doesn’t mean I am any less of a writer.
Stephen King is not saying long vocabulary equals poor writing either, for that matter (if you happen to have just read his quote on the superficial level). He is emphasising the need to express yourself in your own style. If you use long words and it works, so be it; if you use short words and you get your message across, so be it. But, a ‘short word writer’ trying to use longer words just because other writers do becomes a contrived writer (in my opinion anyway).
And a contrived writer loses their ‘voice’.
Of course, this does not mean writers (myself included) should not make the effort to expand and try new things. Staying in one’s comfort zone does not bode well for self-improvement — but neither does beating yourself up about things. As a perfectionist, this is really hard to live up to, but I think I’m getting there.
Now, I cannot end here without passing comment on the analogy at the end of Stephen King’s quote.
Why do people feel the need to dress up their dogs?
I don’t get it. They are animals. They have their own natural (often beautiful) coats. The effort it takes me not to laugh out loud and say ‘why do you do this?’ every time I see a dog dressed up in a coat when we are out walking is immense. I have to clamp my lips shut and look the other way.
Some dogs are way too patient with their owners.
They are not meant to be prettied up with nail polish and bows in their hair. They are not meant to wear little booties, or jackets, or hats. They … are … dogs!
If I was a dog, and my owner did that to me, I would feel the overwhelming need to express my distress and disgust in the only way dogs can.
So, here is one of my short, straight to the point, don’t mess around with fancy vocabulary sentences:
Dogs look stupid in clothes!
Stupid and contrived — in the same way my writing has the potential to look stupid and contrived when I attempt to dress it up with long, flowery words.