The Language That We Use

Every person over the age of 25 is haunted by a specter that looms larger with the passing years. We become out of touch with the hip idioms used by a younger generation. Even worse, we become unable to say them. I cringe when I hear a 50-year-old using “rad,” for instance. It just doesn’t sound right coming out of the mouth of an older person.

A similar problem besets an author writing a contemporary novel. The world of complete sentences, of distinctive adjectives, and a host of more formal elements of a bygone era has been replaced by a style that is closer to the spoken word. I should note the careful decision making of modern masters has not changed a bit. If anything, the cadence of today’s literature rings more true than ever.

I raise this issue because most authors are not aware of how important word choices are. They tend to write in the style they were brought up with. Heck, they are pleased merely to be getting their thoughts down on paper. Yet the tastes of their readers has been changed by the more modern books that they read. I am reading The Sellout, for instance, and as much as I enjoy Paul Beatty, he does not write like Richard Wright.

You need to keep this in mind as you pen your ideas. If the language you’re using seems fussy or ornate to a reader, the very word choices impose a distance between her and the text. It takes on a sepia tint like an old photograph—quaint, but why didn’t people ever smile in those days? Even worse, a reader, after trying so many times to connect with the content, can grow bored with the formality.

Precision in word choice dictates that you assign the dated language to older characters. If you are an elderly writer, your protagonist is likely closer to your age anyway. Younger characters have their own idiom, which you have likely seen in popular media countless times. You just haven’t been in writing mode—i.e., writing down what they are when you come across them. If you’re really daunted by the task, you need merely visit an Instagram page of a younger person, and you’ll find slang galore.

That is the crux of the matter: how lazy are you? Are you willing to get out of your armchair to discover what they say? If not, you’d better hope that your marketing efforts find that older demographic.

Exercise: You can adopt a different tactic altogether. Your prose in general can be elevated above how anyone speaks. This happens most often when the narrative point of view is so far inside the main storyteller’s head that the dialogue is an extension of his thoughts. When all of your prose is crisp, readers want to engage on that higher plane.

“Adults are obsolete children.”
—Dr. Seuss

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.