Thursday, June 23, 2016

No one wants to stop reading to look up a word in a dictionary

“What does parsimonious mean?” my highly-educated husband asked. He was reading Eisenhower In War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith.

Parsimonious. I’d known of the word most of my life. It always reminded me of parsnips. But did I know what it meant?

Um… No, I didn’t. Neither did Dave, and we felt embarrassed.

I felt so embarrassed that I stood up, walked to my desk, and opened my thesaurus. Here’s what I found:

not enough

Dave was still puzzled so I asked him to read me the sentence with parsimonious in it.

“Eisenhower…was parsimonious with the lives of the troops entrusted to his command….”

Eisenhower was not enough with the lives of the troops?
Eisenhower was retentive with the lives of his troops?
Eisenhower was mean with the lives of his troops?
Eisenhower was selfish with the lives of his troops?
Eisenhower was self-restrained with the lives of his troops?

That last meaning, self-restrained, had potential, so I checked that out in the thesaurus: self-controlled, self-disciplined, restrained. Self-restraint also has to do with being frugal, temperate, not excessive, moderate, measured, limited.

So Dave and I concluded Ike valued his troops’ lives and was frugal when it came to endangering them. He practiced self-restraint when it came to sending troops into harm’s way: He recognized the danger he could put them in but exercised restraint so no one would suffer or die unnecessarily.  

OK, that’s enough about parsimonious. My point is this: When you write your memoir, use words your readers will understand.

No one appreciates having to stand up, walk over to the bookshelf, take down the dictionary or thesaurus, and look up a word.

In fact, I suspect most readers simply won’t do it.

Your goal is to make it easy for everyone to read your memoir.

Many years ago, journalism instructors taught us to write for an eighth grade audience. That’s not a typo. Eighth graders!

Recently I ran across that same advice.*

And it’s good advice. It yields benefits:

“We shouldn’t discount simple writing,
but instead embrace it.
We should aim to reduce complexity in our writing
as much as possible.
We won’t lose credibility in doing so.
Our readers will comprehend and retain
our ideas more reliably.
And we’ll have a higher likelihood
of reaching more people.”
Shane Snow,

You can still use interesting, expressive, musical, graphic, textured, dazzling words—words that zing—as long as they’re familiar to your readers, effective words like:

a blowhard

Dear William Zinsser wrote about the importance of choosing words: “Banality is the enemy of good writing. The challenge is to not write like everybody else.” Writers should avoid a word that’s merely serviceableuseful, practical—or dull, he said, and instead strive for freshness.

I jotted down of a few simple yet vivid words penned by Zinsser in his Writing About Your Life:

a sea of codgers, codging the time away
a courtly man
a lofty wicker chair
he listened…with exquisite courtesy
a cultivated man
a rangy, easygoing man
a compact man
he had a scholar’s face: intelligent and quizzical

A word of caution: Use your dictionary and thesaurus wisely. Janice Hardy blogged about “an episode of Friends where the dumb-yet-lovable Joey wrote a letter of recommendation. To sound smart, he used the thesaurus and replaced all his ‘dumb’ words with ‘smart ones.’”  Janice continued, “‘They’re warm, nice people with big hearts’ became ‘They’re humid, pre-possessing homosapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.’”

So go ahead and use words with sparkle and pizzazz—just choose words that most people understand.  

*Additional resources:

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