Writer’s Toolkit: Words and Esotericism

In my last post, I mentioned that the four major elements I consider when I’m deciding which word to use are specificityesotericismetymology, and sonics. Today, we’re tackling esotericism — or, simply put, how likely it is that people have encountered the word before.

When I was a kid, my younger sisters wanted to read the books that I read, and (because at that time in my life I was completely insufferable) I told them that they wouldn’t understand because my books had a lot of “big words.”

“Like what?” my middle sister challenged me (because even as a kid, she knew her worth).

I cast desperately about for an example. “Like ‘mar,'” I said. “And ‘cur.'” Unsurprisingly, these three-letter words failed to impress.

Now that I’m older, I’ve realized two things: first, you should never tell a kid what she can’t read. Second, what we call “big words” are often actually esoteric words. They’re words that we are unlikely to have encountered in our daily lives, words that we might have to puzzle out or that might have a context-specific meaning.

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Writer’s Toolkit: Words and Specificity

This series of blog posts is intended to provide writers with some ways of thinking about the tools of our trade. It’s not meant to be prescriptive; there are no hard or fast rules about what makes “good writing” here. The longer I live, the more certain I am that there is no such thing as “good writing,” anyway — there’s only writing that does what it sets out to do. So here are some ways to think about how you can accomplish what you’re setting out to do.

Our first, most basic tool will always be words. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a thrill to learning new words that’s rivaled only by finding cool rocks or picking flowers. When I see “susurrus” or “inchoate” or “lumpen” on the page, I just want to reach into the story and put it in my pocket.

For me, deciding which words to use is a matter of specificity, esotericism, etymology, and sonics. These are all important things to consider, so I’ll be making a separate post for each.

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