Language Efficiency

When writing a novel, language is important. You need to portray the right actions and emotions so that the reader understands what is going on. For that, you need accurate language.

Immersion is also important: it keeps the reader reading. Immersion is about keeping the reader focused on the events of the story, and not distracting them with unbelievable actions, unrealistic use of resources (I recently read a book in which the writer implies that a palace has been built of obsidian – a material wholly unsuitable for construction) or language.

If you don’t want your reader to think about the language you’re using, you need to use it well, in an unobtrusive manner. The best way to do this is to use the most efficient language. Efficiency in language is about conveying an idea accurately to the largest proportion of readers in the fewest words, using the shortest words available.

Using complex words is inefficient. Complex words are less likely to be understood by all of your readers than simple words, and they tend to contain more letters. Where a simpler word with the same meaning is available, use it. An example is use vs utilise. Use “use”.

Using words some will need to look up in a dictionary is inefficient. Readers will either put your book down to discover the word’s meaning – breaking immersion – or they will fail to understand the sentence to the extent that you understand it. Avoid intellectual terms, jargon and words that a significant proportion of the population won’t have come across before.

Don’t use inefficient sentence structures. Use the active voice where appropriate to reduce sentence length. Copyedit your work to ensure that you are using the most effective sentence structures. For example, I recently read a sentence where the writer avoided addressing a grammatical rule they were unsure about by changing the sentence structure to talk about “the house of James” instead of “James’ house”. As well as making the sentence two words longer, it left the status of the house ambiguous – is this the physical building in which James lives, or the dynastic entity to which James’ descendants belong?

There are valid criticisms of efficient language. It can stifle the narrator’s unique voice and make all writing the same. It could make it harder to use language to dictate pacing. It can remove poetry and atmosphere from description. The writer must determine when best to use efficient language, and when to allow for the more varied use of language to give colour and character to a scene or a setting.

But even in slower paced scenes where atmosphere and description are important, efficient language still has its place. The efficiency of the scene depends on portraying the correct atmosphere and including the important details of the setting without boring or distracting the reader. Here, using passive language might be the most efficient way to portray the mood of the scene. You will still need to select words which readers understand and use sentence structures which readers are familiar with.


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