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Thursday, February 28, 2013

 

Choosing Your Language

Writing an airport crime novel? Know the lingo, but keep
your readers with you. | Credit: Elizabeth King Humphrey

When learning Spanish in my youth, I learned all the numbers, letters, colors, and so forth. As I grew older, I became fairly proficient at ordering beers in Mexican restaurants (and maybe a few other activities). Later, I moved to Europe and lived in a country where Spanish was not a very useful language.

In Prague, I worked in a law firm, an advertising firm, and a multinational news organization. English was not always the common, much less native, language in the office. Even worse, the language that folks often spoke was a specific language.

The language of their jobs.

When writing, you are trying to make your scenes as real and, at the same time, as approachable as possible. Police procedurals bring their readers into the action. But if the readers don't understand what is happening and what a phrase means, they are kept at an arm's length. Outside of the scene, not inside the scene, where you want your readers to be.

Even in fiction, you may find yourself having to learn about the language a character would speak in a law office or a nursery or an airport or a grocery store. To be authentic, understand that there's a good chance that gate change, for example, means different things in different industries. I once worked in a large office where it was common to ask "Where do you sit?" Your office location communicated an unspoken understanding about you and the hierarchy of the office politics. But that's not the same in other offices where I worked.

Sometimes in our non-writing lives, we encounter people who don't understand something that is second-nature in our daily lives. How do you explain the phrase to someone without insulting the uninitiated? Think about that and apply that to your writing.

Don't forget, as you revise, to have a reader who is not involved in the same industry read your work to make sure such specific language is understood.

In your attempt to be authentic, don't lose a reader on the page. Bring them in and show you know your stuff.


Have you used specific language in your writing? How did you keep your readers with you? Have you read any writers who manage to keep you with them?

Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer and editor living in Wilmington, North Carolina. Some days she speaks several languages, especially to her kids, and she's not sure how she'd translate.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Margo Dill said...

This is interesting to think about, Elizabeth, because it is so true that each profession has their own jargon. When I was teaching, our principal/counselors would tell us--don't use teacher jargon when you are talking to the parents. They won't know what your talking about and you will put them off. So true! When writing, it is harder because you want to be true to the character but you don't want to lose readers or put them off. So, it's a fine balance. I like your suggestion of asking a non-industry reader to read and see if they are confused. Good idea!

8:14 AM  
Blogger Patricia Anne McGoldrick said...

Yes, to the outside reader! Also, reading aloud one's writing can help.
Thanks for posting on this topic!

10:01 AM  
Blogger Angela said...

Very true, Elizabeth. I run into this all the time when talking about tech or graphic design specs. Sometimes we're so wrapped up in our professions and the people we deal with on a daily basis that we forget that others outside the industry don't ever use this type of language! Great idea to find readers outside the industry.

1:44 PM  

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