483: Fiction Rule of Thumb

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Fiction Rule of Thumb
Except for anything by Lewis Carroll or Tolkien, you get five made-up words per story. I'm looking at you, Anathem.
Title text: Except for anything by Lewis Carroll or Tolkien, you get five made-up words per story. I'm looking at you, Anathem.


Randall uses a graph that purports that the more words an author makes up, the less likely their book is any good. To demonstrate this, he provides an example where a hypothetical author uses four made-up words in a single sentence: "Fra'as", "Farmlings", "Krytoses", and "Awesomer". The author clearly does not see that having to insert explanations of all the made-up words makes the sentence extremely clumsy.

The title text declares that the average author is allowed five invented words per book before this rule is invoked against them, but mentions that J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll are exceptions, as they are both very famous, well-respected writers who made words up all the time.

Randall also makes a dig at Anathem, a speculative fiction novel by Neal Stephenson about a monastic order on another planet that studies science, mathematics, and philosophy. The book is noteworthy for having a very large number of made-up or repurposed words, enough to require its own glossary. One of the more common other-worldly words is fraa (without an apostrophe), as an analogue to "friar"/"brother".


[Line graph shown with an inverse curve.]
[Y-Axis: Probability book is good.]
[X-Axis: Number of words made up by author.]
[The curve becomes less steep as the number of words increases.]
"The Elders, or Fra'as, guarded the farmlings (children) with their krytoses, which are like swords but awesomer..."
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Also, you get minus points if you have to add a totally reading-flow rupturing explanation. And if the words which supposedly come from one language have completely different linguistic structure. And for random apostrophes. And if you cannot read the book without a wordlist for constant reference next to you. Rule of thumb #2: if it's not clear from the context or from a smooth, unobtrusive explanation* and/or if the reader has to go back the second time it is mentioned to remember what it was, don't use it.

Exception to this: Terry Prachett. How the hell can that guy make funny literature out of annoyingly large footnotes?? 09:14, 25 June 2013 (UTC)

I know an author who made up words and still turned out well! His name is Andrew Hussie, creator of Homestuck. Captchalogue, Sylladex, Alchemiter, Cruxite, Respiteblock, Recuperacoon, Cookalizer, Fenestrated Wall, you name it! (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Well one, that's a webcomic, not a book. Two, most of these words are portamntus (Captcha + Catalogue = Captchalogue, Recuperate + Cocoon = Recuperacoon). And while this is certainly a nice observation, it doesn't really contribute to the discussion since the page is not really about Homestuck.--Edrobot (talk) 19:42, 23 May 2014 (UTC)

Dune comes to mind... 07:07, 15 April 2014 (UTC)

Interesting that Randall omitted Shakespeare from the list of people allowed to make up words. Shakespeare used 17,677 different words in all of his known works. About 10% of those words are words that he made up and are now technically official English (includes changing parts of speech for existing words) 21:45, 25 September 2014 (UTC)

I believe that Shakespeare didn't invent 1700 words, although they were at one point attributed to him as earliest known use - especially in the days when searches for early examples were done by hand. Today in many cases earlier examples have since been found. IO9 has an article about it http://io9.gizmodo.com/no-william-shakespeare-did-not-really-invent-1-700-eng-1700049586
There is also the fact that while some of his plays are the earliest (surviving) example of a word, most of those words must have been known to the public. I can't imagine people going to a performance where they don't recognise a tenth of the words. 01:03, 22 April 2016 (UTC)
What's the problem?
If you can make up a story you should be able to make up words. A much worse problem is when an author thinks describing scenery is part of the story. And when women stop in mid paragraph to describe clothing... Feck that!
Making up a word or two to get around shit like that is OK. It is only hand-waving a ghost out from the machine. Asimov was terrible for that crap in his early work. He grew out of it, in a manner of speaking, recognising there was a time and place.

there are many exceptions to this rule... Jhereg, for example. 10:43, 6 July 2015 (UTC)

I'm surprised that A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess hasn't been mentioned. It is regularly featured in 'Top 100 Books' lists, but features its own language, Nadsat. --Pudder (talk) 11:28, 6 July 2015 (UTC)

I think a lot of comments here are based on missunderstanding. The CHANCE that the book is good is lower. It doesn't mean "more made up words" -> "worse book". 21:48, 23 December 2015 (UTC)

What about Animorphs? There are quite a few made-up words there, and Randall is a fan of Animorphs. Why is Animorphs not mentioned in the title text? 16:59, 18 October 2017 (UTC)

Well, writing from Italy here... Dante's Divina Commedia is largely acknowledged as containing tons of made-up words and then-weird sentences that are now common sayings in Italian. And we're talking about one of the world's greatest literature masterpieces ever :) does that count as an exception?

Most certainly! Psychoticpotato (talk) 12:49, 23 May 2024 (UTC)

You know, if you don't explain the words and just let readers piece together their meanings with outside context, it's much more acceptable to do this. Psychoticpotato (talk) 13:15, 23 May 2024 (UTC)