Does Jargon Belong in your Writing?

I’m a literary (not to be confused with “literal”) nerd. When I read, I like the content to seem genuine and appropriate for the characters, timeframe, and culture. A reality of many cultures is that they have special dialects, jargon and/or slang. If you misuse these, it may actually cause me to grind my teeth and that’s not fun. You could say slang is a pet peeve of mine. I’d be thrilled if people always spoke correctly, accurately, and never felt the need to use slang. I’m also realistic and it’s quite obvious that our everyday interactions display a plethora of made-up words and jargon. Is it necessary to incorporate jargon, slang or dialects into your writing?

Yes, and no.

Sorry for the confusion, but I want to be quite clear about slang and jargon in writing. I’ve read classics, popular mainstream books, and have also taken the time to read free content that is typically from new authors, some of which is great and some of which needs a little bit of polishing. I’ve noticed that there are distinct times when my literary nerd seizes control of my reading experience and crashes it into a brick wall. The cause is often poorly placed slang and/or jargon. You can write an awesome book which doesn’t really use slang or jargon, but you may feel the need to incorporate slang into your writing.

In a nutshell:

  1. It’s okay to use a little bit of jargon or slang in dialogue, but I avoid incorporating a particular dialect that will need to be properly maintained throughout an entire book. That is difficult to pull off without causing the reader at some point to think, “that’s not how they would say this phrase”.
  2. I don’t mind reading slang or jargon in a character’s thoughts when it is part of the character’s persona. In fact, it might seem a little weird if they did not use slang and jargon in their thoughts but spoke it in their dialogue. That’s a continuity problem, so by all means use it in the character’s thoughts if you’re using it in dialogue.
  3. Avoid putting slang and jargon in the other spaces of your writing unless you’ve created a narrator with a specific persona.
  4. Even if you envision your character swearing or using jargon profusely, don’t write it that way. A few sparse and appropriately-placed displays of slang or jargon are sufficient to get your point across to the reader.
  5. Try to use slang or jargon that is self-explanatory, or that you can explain through conversation with another character, and that is widely used and accepted in society. Your writing could be witty and epic, but if your audience isn’t familiar with the jargon then all that effort goes to waste. Readers might get frustrated, or worse…put the book down and stop reading completely.

Now that I’ve summarized some of my biggest reading pet peeves, as a writer I have to say that you’ll no doubt break these rules intentionally at some point. We’ve probably all read books with dialect throughout (think Huckleberry Finn), or ones which profusely use jargon that only lawyers or computer programmers would understand. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Know your character, and know your audience.

You’ll know if slang and jargon work for your character, and chances are if it works for your character, it’ll work for your readers. So there are my thoughts on following, and not following guidelines on when to use slang and jargon effectively in your writing. Feel free to add any recommendations of your own, or ways that you’ve found which work well for incorporating slang or jargon into your writing.

Thanks for stopping by, and just keep writing, writing!

One comment

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