The Time & Place for BIG WORDS

We are excited to welcome our newest contributor Patricia Friedrich! 

In a recent workshop with the wonderfully talented Lisa Cron, whose book Story Genius I had read, I learned something about my love of big words. It turns out that, whereas my big words had helped me in my academic career, they were at times hurting me in my fiction one. It all had to do with anesthetizing the brain!

You see, my academic work often takes me to the analytical side of things. When I am writing research, I explain my claims, provide examples, and then introduce evidence from studies I have conducted. In that context, I will have succeeded if I wake up the analytical areas of the brain of my readers to have them consider whether they agree with me or have counterarguments that challenge my claims. It is all very logical, and big words, the ones I have cultivated over a lifetime of loving and studying language, feel right at home in that context. I am a linguist by training, and few things make me as intrigued as finding a new word and then as content as using it in context myself—discovering its place and time of origin ranks pretty high too.

The problem started when I brought my over-analytical mind and big words into fiction, and this is where Lisa Cron’s amazing insights came into play. Lisa describes how stories speak directly to our survival instinct, how they provide us with experiential knowledge for future reference. However, I first approached fiction through the lenses of my command of language and not my understanding of story or human beings’ innate instinct to use stories as roadmaps in their own lives. I could write great, grammatically accurate sentences. I could access a large vocabulary. For crying out loud, I write linguistic theory! All I had to do was put it all together in stories, and I would dazzle everyone with my command of the English Language.

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Only they weren’t dazzled. They were pulled from the story by all the big words I chose and complex sentence structures I created. Lisa’s work taught me that great fiction works because it anesthetizes the part of the brain that performs analytical tasks, the very ones I was waking up with my words as powerfully as if I was using a big alarm clock. The part that should light up instead, is the one hungry for story, the one that experiences story as if it were real. The one that allows you to smile, cry, and feel empathy while the words in front of you disappear. When I used too many of my big words, I caused my readers to fall out of total identification with my characters. They could not be in 1920s Brazil or Victorian England if they were trying to figure out what argute or ineffable meant. Shrewd and indescribable would have done just fine (or better yet, I could have just shown them shrewd and indescribable in the first place).

It turns out in fiction, as in life, sometimes less is more. I redirected my love of language to creating beautiful description and vivid imagery that can be both simple and elegant at the same time. I learned the power of everyday words and sentences of different lengths. I started feeling joy at focusing on the story and letting language serve it rather than the other way around. And when the pull of old habits, as well as the thrill of a new complicated word, takes me to lexical items or multi-subordinated sentences, I apply them to my analytical writing where they can shine.




Patricia Friedrich is a Professor of English (Linguistics/Rhetoric and Composition) at Arizona State University. She is an expert in the spread of English throughout the world, a researcher of peace in relation to language, and the author/editor of six books, including The Sociolinguistics of Digital Englishes and award-winning The Literary and Linguistic Construction of Obsessive-compulsive Disorder. She has written many chapters in other books and articles in such periodicals as Harvard Business Review and World Englishes. Her short fiction has appeared in literary journals such as The Linnet’s Wings, Birkensnake, and Gray Sparrow. Her novel manuscript, The Art of Always, won first prize in the “Realizing the Dream” competition as a mainstream fiction work (RWA’s Desert Rose Chapter). She is represented by TZLA Literary and Film Agency and lives in the greater Phoenix area with her family.