Twenty-Five Cent Words

Reviewing another writer’s work is a great responsibility. One of the greatest ones, I think, is my responsibility as a reviewer to understand what a writer is trying to say and how they are trying to say it. Need I say that whether I like the work or not is irrelevant? I’m not sure I like Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. That it is a work of genius I have no doubt.

Some writers use multisyllabic words (i.e. twenty-five cent words) in their prose. Others do not. But I take it as article of faith that if a writer uses a twenty-five cent word, or, god forbid, a fifty-cent word, they do so for very good reasons. As a reviewer

Thus the responsibility as a reviewer falls to me look the word up in the dictionary. A review comment that goes you use twenty-five cent words when ten-cent words will do” smacks of a horribly, lazy kind of anti-intellectual arrogance. Words contain both rhythm and meaning. In the case of verbs, our English language contains words with tremendous nuance. A character can gallop, prance, traipse and slink. Each word conveys a different meaning, far richer than walked like a horse, walk with high, springy steps, to walk around aimlessly yet seemingly with purpose and to walk furtively.

As a reader, I take no offense when an author uses a word I don’t know. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll look it up while reading. If not, I’ll note it and review the definition at a later time. I never feel that the author has somehow broken some secret covenant with the me that says the author shall never remind me that I don’t know everything. Nor do I feel the author lords his intelligence over me when she uses a word like mendacious.

If a reader refuses to look up a word in the dictionary, as writers that is not our concern. But as reviewers we have an obligation to look up the damn word! When we do, we learn a new word for our own writing; but, more importantly, we come just that much closer to being better reviewers.

A critique that scolds the writer for using words the reviewer doesn’t understand - and is too lazy to look up in the dictionary - says everything about the reviewer and nothing about the writer. Which means the reviewer has not helped the writer at all .I’ve wasted her time because she has had to read my stupid, helpless review.

As writers we are in this big, crazy thing together. Respect should be a given. Part of respect is humility. A writer who refuses to review definitions of unknown words is a writer who has ceased to grow and is now trite.