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Why Do So Many Writers Use Words That Might Be Difficult for Some Readers?

Posted: 03/11/2013 8:01 pm

This question originally appeared on Quora.
2013-03-11-lcopeland.jpeg
Answer by Laura Copeland, a curious person

Say you're hosting a dinner party.

Moments before your guests are due to arrive, you're putting the finishing touches on a fine-looking platter of bruschetta. You saved yourself an extra piece, of course, which you pick up and bite into.

Hmm.

The bread needs something, you think. You can't say exactly what. Better olive oil? More tomatoes?

Alice Waters, whose recipe you're using, suggests using a shallot to liven up the flavor. But you only have a minute before your friends arrive -- there's no time for peeling, dicing, and macerating. And you're not even entirely sure you have a shallot.

Instead, you ditch the tomatoes and swap them for strawberries, pulling from a chopped bunch reserved for dessert. You scoop a dollop of ricotta from a tub in the refrigerator and spread that on, too. Then you add a splash of balsamic -- the 10-dollar kind -- and a swirl of honey.

The result is incredible. It takes all your willpower not to eat every piece of this new strawberry-honey-ricotta bruschetta.

Crisis averted, you're merrily welcoming your guests in short order.

"How's the bruschetta?" you ask your Italian friend Sophia after she's had a few bites.

"Delizioso," she says. "Very good. I can't taste the olive oil, though."

"The strawberries really steal the show, don't they?" you say, trying to hide a proud grin.

"The whole idea of bruschetta is to taste the new olive oil as soon as it comes out of the press."

But those strawberries are from the Ferry Building farmers market, you think. Organic. Artisanal. Hand-picked. Free-range. Grown sustainably, even, on the same farm that supplies berries to famed chef Stephen Rothchild's Michelin-starred restaurant! How could she not appreciate them?

It's easy to write off the person who asked this question as simple-minded. And who knows, maybe that's correct. Maybe she's a third-grader trying to tackle Infinite Jest. Some things are heady by design.

But often, more often than writers like to admit, readers struggle to get through a piece because of the writer. Readers come to us expecting a good story and instead get a mouthful of strawberries.

Whether the reader likes strawberries is irrelevant. She's here for the olive oil, and she can't taste it.

Consider that the asker is a real Italian who knows her bruschetta. Someone who can tell when she's being fed bullshit coated in sugar extracted from açai berries foraged in the Brazillian rainforest. Someone who knows you didn't use good olive oil.

In our defense, fine writing is a luxury. Writers don't often have the time -- or the humility -- to wait to review a piece with fresh eyes. It's unsettling to look at something you wrote and realize that it needs a rewrite; that the olive orchard has been infested with a fruit fly, so to speak, and will need replanting and another five years to reach maturation.

It's easier to feed you strawberries. Or in my case, spices:




A shifty-eyed guy at the coffee shop the other day opened his coat and showed 'em to me. "These'll make you a real juggernaut on the literary scene," he promised. I took a couple home for 10 cents apiece.

Now I have a ready-made remedy for sentences like this one:
It looked like a storm was coming.

The grammar is sound. The words get the job done. But it's nothing special, nor is the rest of the essay from which it was lifted. What to do?

I know! Those words could use some synonyms.

Let's try some:
There was a bouquet of petrichor in the air.

Petrichor! The smell of rain on the earth! That is exactly what I wanted to say!

My spice rack has saved the day again, I think, until I read this:
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

That's the opening line to Neuromancer. It's simple, works well, and isn't gimmicky.

I don't know William Gibson, but from personal experience, I can attest that a good sentence like that takes time -- not time in a thesaurus but time in your head, thinking and thinking and trusting the process.

Hemingway and Alice Waters have it right: Simple is better. But simple isn't easy. Simple takes time.

And it's much faster to pick a strawberry than it is to grow new olives.

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