Writing Styles Have Changed

I’m reading a book right now by Patricia Wentworth, published in 1953. Although I’m very much enjoying this book, I’m finding the going slower than in the novels of today, which started me thinking. Patricia Wentworth was English, which partially accounts for her writing style, and she was from another generation of writers. Born in India in 1878 and privately educated, she was most famous for her Miss Maud Silver mystery series, although her career as an author spanned many decades with varied series and stand alone novels.

Her language is more literary than works of today and she uses larger, more obscure words, which I’m finding fascinating. I love to learn new words and have been consulting the dictionary for each one I’m not familiar with. She never would have ended the previous sentence with a preposition, by the way!

When I was writing my book, SHE HAD TO KNOW, my first drafts had “bigger” words, ones I thought described the situation or setting much better than any others I might have used in ordinary conversation, but I was discouraged from doing much of that in today’s market. Interesting, huh? I was encouraged to write simply and plainly so the reader’s experience would be smooth and rapid. I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed with that advice. In my humble opinion, some words are better than others and I had spent countless hours finding just the perfect words to explain my meaning.  However, I wanted to be published and I was confident editors certainly knew more than I, so I cut out many of the lovely words I had so painstakingly inserted.

Perhaps this situation is a generational one since, by some, I am now considered a senior . My reading experiences started earlier than that of many readers today, but I keep hearing phrases like, “Books today are being dumbed down.” Is that actually true? Is it true only in genre fiction? It definitely isn’t true with all the books I read, but many on the market are meant to be fast reads. Could that be considered dumbing down? People today have busy lives and they don’t want to spend time looking up words in a dictionary in order to understand what an author is saying. Is that true?

I guess, for me, I like a mixture of reading material. Sometimes I don’t want to have to think too hard. I just want to escape into someone else’s world for a short time. And sometimes I want to learn something that takes a bit more time and effort.

What is your opinion? How do you like to read? Am I completely off base?


Filed under books, fiction, musings, writing

19 responses to “Writing Styles Have Changed

  1. I love words, too!
    Some of the words I used in Oliver the Overachiever were big and interesting. I thought that a kid can learn a large word as easily as a tiny one. Especially if a word is interesting to their ears and imaginations I’ve found that kids are likely to embrace it. When I read my book to groups at schools I explain the new words before I start. I encourage them to interrupt to ask the meaning of a word and also show them the glossary in the back.
    I love your viewpoint on the richness of language and agree wholeheartedly!

    • I absolutely agree with you, Karin. I love what you did with Oliver the Overachiever! It’s the kind of book kids will want to keep for their children one day. J.K. Rowling used big words in her books and we all know that didn’t deter kids. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. And keep up the wonderful work!

  2. dellanioakes

    I think that books need a smattering of both simple words and big ones to make them interesting and more universal. I was told by a dear friend, “You write like an English teacher and you also write as an author” What she was saying was that my style was a little uneven. I had to find a blend of the two. I didn’t “dumb it down” per se, but I did give it a more casual feel by adding contractions (something I never would have done in school) and took out words like “supererogatory”

  3. Frances Bush

    I have to agree with you Coco. I love to read and I like to take my time reading and I read it as though I am there with the people and whatever I am reading about. as if it were me talking so I have time to picture in my mind how everything I am reading about looks and I just kind of put myself there. I love to learn new words so I always have a pen and paper close by so I can write new words down. I always thought you were suppose to read, to learn and enjoy all at the same time. I read a lot of Christain Novels. I wish I could have read your book, before you cut out so much. Books cost a lot of money and I llike to get my monies worth and I get a lot of plesure taking my time to read every word that is written.

    • That’s wonderful, Frances. Reading is a delight for me, too. There’s a whole new world out there in books. I was a bit late in my journey to reading and now I’m making up for it. Thank you for being so faithful in reading my blog each month and also for commenting. I appreciate it so much.

  4. I’m with you, Coco. I don’t mind having to look up a word. It means I’ve learned a new one, and I hope that process never ends. On the other hand, I believe “dumbing down” exists and the generation (or two) following mine may not even own a dictionary. For that reason, I stick to familiar words in my mystery stories.

    • Interesting observation, Earl! I think you are quite correct. I have some Scottish dialect in my book, and although I tweaked it so it would be easy to understand, my editor and publisher suggested I add a Scottish/ American English glossary. I hoped that wouldn’t offend my readers, but found several readers thanked me. I also simplified some descriptive language, so I guess I did the same thing you did. Interesting. Thank you for your view and comment.

  5. Although I don’t want to read pages and pages of flowery speech, I think a lot of the “best sellers” today feature very clipped speech. Sentences have become short and vocabulary is 8th grade. I like reading British mysteries because these writers have much better vocabulary.

    • Wow, Mickey. I am agreeing with all the comments on this blog! I agree with you. British mysteries are my favorites, too, and for the same reasons. Thank you for reading and commenting on this blog. I appreciate it so much.

  6. One of the best ways to understand the change in writing is to compare a newspaper article written today with one written in the 1950s. The style of writing and vocabulary are strikingly different. Yes, I do think writers have taken to writing in a manner that speeds up reading, but at the cost of clarity and depth. Academic writing doesn’t necessarily have a larger vocabulary but it does tend to have more jargon that tends to obscure the meaning except to those in the field.

    Another way writing has changed is in the degree of subtlety in character development and plot. Writers are encouraged to spell everything out, leave nothing to the imagination, make it all crystal clear. (Cliches abound in this sort of writing.)

    WIthout a strong and varied vocabulary, we lose not only specific words but also the meanings and ideas those words convey.

    • Well said, Susan. Again, I agree. In your sentence regarding authors being encouraged to spell everything out, leaving nothing to the imagination, I’ve experienced that, too. Often, I think, readers aren’t given enough credit for figuring out things on their own. The readers I’ve heard from are generally very capable, smart people.
      Thank you for your thoughts and comments. What an interesting discussion.

  7. Styles and some rules have certainly changed over the years. I can appreciate what I think of as fancy writing, but it if it is too detailed, I get a little bored. I like a mix. Fast-paced with shorter sentences to push a story’s action, and slower-paced with longer sentences to capture my imagination. Great post, Coco.

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