These days I am reading On Writing by Stephen King. Like any other contemporary writer he advises aspiring writers not to go overboard with difficult words and you don’t need a comprehensive vocabulary in order to write a great book. I totally agree with him despite the fact that I love reading and using words that are not used in day-to-day interactions.
But yes, you can easily make out if a writer is simply being superfluous or he or she actually means to use a particular word. It also depends on your general style and your audience. You don’t need to tone down your language just because some people won’t be able to understand it. If painters started worrying about whether people will be able to decipher their paintings or not, they won’t be able to paint at all, especially the exponents of modern art. The empty paper or the blank screen in front of you is your canvas, the words are your brush and paints, and your sentence formations are the strokes that you use to create your masterpiece. In case they complain that you are hard to read, you should either change the way you write, or you should target a different audience.
I have no problem if occasionally I have to use a dictionary in order to understand what a writer is trying to convey. I don’t hold this against him or her. In fact I love learning new words so much that I consider it my own drawback if, while reading a book, I have to refer to a dictionary repeatedly.
Language is a tool and you use this tool to make an impact. While writing you should keep this in mind. What is your objective? Is your message important or the words you use to convey your message? Of course a certain degree of erudition is important because when it comes to dumbing down, there is no stopping to it. The language you use for the college going audience, or even banking professionals, is going to be quite different than the language you use for 5th graders.
For me, and I’m sure there are many people like me, good literature is like classical music. In order to appreciate it, you have to spend some time to understand it. You cannot appreciate Dhrupad without knowing its intricacies. Similarly, simple text devoid of captivating words can be a drab experience.
Can you express complex thoughts in simple words? Yes, you definitely can. Read Milan Kundera to experience that.
There was a time when I used to use a thesaurus a lot. My main aim was to find alternative words, not necessarily difficult, but that sounded good to me. Even these days I occasionally use a thesaurus, but not in order to find words that I don’t know, but in order to find words I’m somehow unable to come up with. For instance, all of a sudden I cannot remember a word I would like to use to express something, but I know a similar, related word. So I start with that word – and thanks to hypertext thesaurus tools these days – I start drilling down until I come across the word I want to use.
Somewhere in the book Stephen King says, “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes.”
While I totally agree, sometimes when you simply appear in your undergarments, it becomes a bit odd.