Just how important is it to use big words?

Should I be judged on the size of my, ahem, vocabulary?

In the Friends episode referenced in the title, Joey is tasked with writing a letter but struggles with the concern that he may not be able to convey the appropriate message without embellishing or polishing what he says. His solution was to run every word of a letter through the thesaurus on a computer and trust that this would do the trick.

For those who haven’t seen the episode, it didn’t. (Don’t moan about spoilers, the program finished over a decade ago).

I’ve read books by China Mieville and I’ve been struck by the vast vocabulary that he has at his disposal but also the casually adept way he utilises it. He spins incredible tales that you have to practically bolt yourself to to keep up with as you acclimatise to how he writes. Trust me, it’s well worth it, with Embassytown being a particular highlight of what he does.

But should an author just bombard the reader with prose peppered with words that have them reaching for the dictionary every two minutes? If the reader can’t keep up with a tangled nonsense of the thesaurus taking over, the book fails. I could spruce up what I’ve written but it’s just a tiny little step before all I’d be left with is a collection of words rather than a story.

I need to do my best to avoid the mistakes of only relying on a limited stack of words but also not to swing too far the other way and just go nuts with all of the longest words I can find.

There are enough ‘heavy’ stories out there to show that people will read all of the stories at that end of the spectrum but also, there are a vast number of more ‘pulpy’ offerings at the other end so an easier read isn’t always to be overlooked. I suppose that it just means that the strength of the stories just come from the way the writer can stitch everything together.

In short, try too hard and any story I’d write with all the linguistic gymnastics included will end up a perfect copy of the letter from Friends.


  1. I enjoyed this post very much. I have had a similar dilemma to you when writing my novels. It is a balance between making sure that the book makes sense, is reader friendly and continues to follow the plot seamlessly, along with the literary gymnastics to which you refer. I try to be objective – I know how frustrating it is to have to reach for the dictionary every five minutes when reading a book and usually, if I have to do this, the book doesn’t last the duration. Great food for thought – thanks 🙂

    1. Unleashing a muscular vocabulary, one that just flexes and manages to intimidate, is thin ice over very deep water. China Meiville is excellent at pushing the reader without just tying you up in knots. You’re bang on that the book won’t last if you push too hard or too far.

      Happy writing.

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