Slang Words and Creative Writing

Target Audience: beginner and intermediate creative writers

Content

Question

I’ve been thinking about slang words, colloquialisms, & ambiguous words. When does one use these in order to better convey the gist of what the writer is trying to say? Do they go best in witty dialogue? Does their usage depend on the genre of the story?

Writing Group Member

Note: For the purpose of this blog post, colloquialisms and ambiguous words are treated as “slang”. 

The Short Answer 

A writer should consider their target audience when using slang; is there a niche readership or is the story targeting a broad population?

Why Use Slang?

Slang words can add richness to a story, add an extra layer, and help set a time, place and humour. Watch an episode of The Brady Bunch, the words “groovy” and “far out” conjure up 1970s America. Classic novels offer a window into how people spoke in the past. Language is ever changing with culture. Every culture and subculture engages in unique sayings and expressions.  

Slang helps the reader relate and connect to the story. How many people use perfect English? Even the odd person who speaks perfect English will be surrounded by those who abuse language, and thus slang is familiar to them. 

Characters should speak like real life people (unless you have a reason for them not to, like an alien from out of space). It’s natural to insert slang into dialogue and reflects characterisation; their age, status, background or wit. 

Slang can be slipped into narration. Often slang within the narration brings the reader down to the writer’s level, because it’s a language most of us can relate too. Slang adds a layer of humour. Terry Pratchett was a master at adding wit to his narration. 

Writing for a General Audience

There are no hard rules for slang usage within different genres. Even literary fiction writers may use slag via dialogue for characterisation. In popular fiction, slag is a writer’s choice; Stephen King uses slang in his dialogue and narration. 

As a general guide, sacrificing slang may appeal to a broader audience. Some readers are offended by swearing. Readers with English as a second language might struggle with words that aren’t in the dictionary. Even amongst the English speaking world, there are unique words and sayings birthed from different regions. 

Before watering down your writing to appeal to the masses, keep in mind you can’t please everyone and watering down your writing pleases no one. You may decide to write for a narrower pool of readers. For example, appeal to local readers rather than market your story globally. You can target a generation. Many writers are successful writing for a niche market.    

Writing for a Niche Audience

A niche audience will understand slang language, it’s their tongue, their culture you’ve tapped into. No special considerations are necessary.  

Problems arise if the writing is to appeal to a wider audience. There is a risk of creating a lost in translation situation for the average reader and as a result risks limiting readership. Adding largely unknown words needs skill to pull off. Maybe splash a word here and there, a word surrounded by context will indicate its meaning.  

Novels are more forgiving than short stories, the higher word count provides room to drip slang words throughout the text, and readers can essentially learn a new language a slow pace. By nature, short stories don’t offer room to ‘teach’ or show the reader the meaning of words.   

A glossary or footnote can be included and are better than nothing. Keep in mind every time a reader stops reading to refer to a word, they are jolted out of the story. 

Final Note

Writing is an art form. Slag is a tool used to add extra layers and meaning, and can breathe interest into a dull story. However, too much slang might saturate the colour of the story and become a frustrating read. 



Categories: language, Writing

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