In workshops, I’ll sometimes hear, “I had no idea what this word meant.” I’ll say that having to look something up isn’t bad. You learn a word! But if you’re doing so every other sentence, it’s a problem. There’s also the issue of what an obscure word gains the writer.
Someone I edited used the noun “remit,” as in “That was outside her remit.” Not to brag but I’m a word person—I don’t even bother with the New York Times crossword between Monday and Thursday. After I got my first dictionary at 11, I’d pore over it as if it were an adventure story. But I didn’t know “remit.” The dictionary said: “Chiefly British. An area of responsibility; scope.” The writer, whom I respect, is American. In his defense, he was unaware it was British. My point was it could sound pretentious. His substitute? Ambit (“sphere or scope, as of influence”). I didn’t know that, either—for a moment I thought it might be a typo for “gambit.” We settled on “purview.”
So ask yourself as you write if you’re delighting, within reason, in English’s variety to liven up your prose or if you might be seen as showing off. How to tell? It’s a judgment call. And it is your call—just know the consequences.
The three most important elements of a personal essay are reflection, honesty, and discovery.
Reflection can be almost invisible—for example, in a narrative from an adolescent perspective, the teenage you asks a question of yourself that then lingers in the background (ideally for the reader to answer). Or it might be a section in which you actually step back for several paragraphs or more to take stock. (See tip 10, “Wanna Make Something of It?”) But on some level, an essay needs a reckoning.
Honesty is the sense that you’re being truthful as you remember events and aren’t holding back to protect someone or make yourself look better. Readers can pick up on such subterfuge.
Discovery means you’ve discovered something in writing the essay. That may end up on the page as an aha moment or might be between the lines, the transformation that got you where you are as the person telling the story. But if you don’t discover anything, the reader won’t. (See tip 8, “Throw Away the Map”), and discovery is one of the joys of reading.
Of writing, too.