Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Jargon: Instant Authority or "Geek to Me"?

This week I am thrilled to have fellow horse-woman and writer Rhonda Lane as my guest. Rhonda mostly rides a desk chair these days where she works on her mystery novels and The Horsey Set , her horses-and-culture blog. She lives in the Hartford, CT, area on a hillside with her husband and their three cats who allow the humans to share their domicile.

A matter of understanding

What does this next sentence mean to you?

“A chestnut wearing green leg wraps stood in the cross ties.”

If you know little or nothing about horses, it’s gibberish. You don’t know a “cross tie” from a “bow tie.”

If you have some familiarity with horses, a picture formed in your mind, except you may have wondered as to what shade of chestnut? And others who know horses may be focused on the cross ties because your barn doesn’t use them or you don’t approve of them.

So, you may not realize that “chestnut” in the earlier sentence refers to the horse’s color, a shade of orangish-brown.

And, if those details are important to the action of the story – even beyond helping you or imagine the scene – then you’re lost. You may even give up on a book you might otherwise enjoy, if you stumble too often on unfamiliar words.

One of the issues with writing “insider” books is making jargon from the world of the story accessible for a wide audience.

How I revise for non-horsey readers

Remember the sentence in question. “A chestnut wearing green leg wraps stood in the cross ties.”

Let’s look at the sentence with the following questions in mind.
The horse has a different question
(photo courtesy of Smitty, Walking Horse Trivia)
Who’s telling the story?

The story is told in first-person by a woman journalist with some knowledge of horses. She’s liable to use the wording of that sentence in question, but my goal is to make the scene vivid for any reader. I want a reader who’s new to anything about horses to see what the protagonist sees, but through the filter of the way my sleuth expresses herself.

Is the detail important?

That the horse is chestnut will be important later in the book. The cross ties? Some equestrian disciplines don’t use them, but this one does. That the leg wraps are green is part of an image system I’ve set up between two rival stables.

Does the detail slow down the plot?

A single short sentence? No. But I’m going to have to break it up into more sentences to help readers orient themselves. That in itself is risky. Unless …

Can I fold the detail into action?

My reporter protagonist is looking for people to interview after a horse show while people are preparing horses for travel. She comes upon a man wrapping the horse’s legs in protective bandages. The cross ties are important because this is a discipline that uses them and I want to show some of the culture and practices of this particular discipline.

What does the thing in question look like/sound like/feel like that everyone knows about?

I can serve two kinds of audiences by stating that the creature in question is “a chestnut horse the color of a caramel apple.” Equestrians now have a shade in mind, and those new to horses can imagine the golden festival treat. That people think happy thoughts when they think of caramel apples serves my purposes, too, because this is a “good guy” horse. (Oops. Spoiler)

Jargon can be good

From the film APOLLO 13 to TV’s ER and CSI shows, jargon usage conveys authority and an insider vibe. Yet, film and TV have the advantage of accompanying visuals to set the unfamiliar words into context.

Readers of novels don’t have visuals to help. Writers have to help readers imagine a scene and the action.

Have you ever had a book spoiled by too much jargon you didn’t understand? If you’re also a writer, how do you simplify your world’s jargon? Can you think of other ways to deal with jargon?


  1. My sister in law would know that sentence straight off. In fact, that picture resembles the interior of her barn, but not at all one of her horses.

    In the matter of jargon, I find it's rather distracting, for example, when Tom Clancy starts going off on his long winded technical insider view of whatever military toy he's interested in during reading his books.

  2. I imagine your sister-in-law has the horse's halter on the correct way, William. :)

    I have to admit that sometimes I even skip over jargon, especially in the Clancy books. I think he even went into great scientific detail at the molecular level about the explosion of an atomic bomb for many pages. I glazed over. My engineer husband loved it.

    Thanks for saying "hello," William.

    (Aw, shoot. I can't comment here in a name anyone will recognize. I either have to use my old inactive blog or a LiveJournal account that I don't really use. Sorry. But it's really me.)

    Rhonda Lane

  3. I have a similiar dilemma in a different specialty. My protagonist owns a champagne and sparkling wine store. Notice that I used both champagne and sparkling wine in the same sentence. To connoiseurs, there is a difference between the two, demarking wine origin. Those terms are now regulated to differentiate, but not so long ago champagne was used as a generic term. I find using both terms to describe the protag's store unweildy, and yet I am hoping to attrached some wine connoiseurs as readers, who will surely point out the difference to me if I don't use both terms. What would you do?

  4. Nice post, Rhonda. I would kind of understand it, but I completely agree that you don't want to lose readers from the jargon. You could also have your protag bump into "one of the cross ties that kept the chestnut from rearing up" or whatever.

    I have to be careful that my linguist protag doesn't get all technical on us. Luckily in my great writers group people call me on that stuff.


  5. Hi, E.B. - I would use the phrase in a scene so the explanation could be entertaining, informative AND set up your protagonist in a companionable light.

    Maybe you have a spot where your characters can mention something in passing where you can illustrate the whole mix-up? If you have, say, a perfectionist wine snob character and someone who simply enjoys "the bubbly," you could easily have them launch into a "it's not champagne, but sparkling wine" skirmish.

    Or if your protagonist has family members who don't "get it," you could spin that family conflict dynamic in. (A lot of us have families who don't understand what we do.)

    Or you could even make the whole thing a running gag, depending upon your story's tone. Only a couple or three mentions scattered around could suffice as a running gag.

    Anyway, I hope that gives you some good ideas. Good luck, E.B. And thanks for stopping by.

    Rhonda Lane

  6. Rhonda: Well done! I think you raise a great point. There are times I can't get through the details. But then, there are books I love that hone in on details that I do know about and love to see them there. How to balance? I have no idea. Thanks for the posting. I enjoyed it.

  7. Hi, Cassy - You bring up good points. How we determine how much detail to put in is a judgment call. What excites one reader can bore another.

  8. I'm posting this for Eleanor Sullo, the author of the Menopause Murder series. Thanks, Ellie:

    Hi Rhonda, I couldn't post either. But here's what I would have, if I could:
    First it's a sweet picture of you, with your perennial smile.
    Second, Rhonda, Great discussion. I didn't know you wrote horsey books. Though experts can load too much jargon into their books, since I LOVE horses and horse stories, I always look up phrases and items I don't understand. That way I've learned a whole lot about the horse world. Love it. My book "Menopause Murders: Hurdles" is my attempt at including some horse world stuff, AND comes out in May,2011 FROM wINGS.
    My best, Ellie