Incorporating Research into Fictional Writing: On Jargon

How to Use a Word Palette to Knit Meaning into Complex Terminology 

One of the biggest challenges in writing a story or poem inspired by science or technology is deciding how much research to include without overwhelming the reader. Successful science fiction manages to teach the reader about existing or imagined realities, but the reader never feels as if they’re at an academic lecture. One key to including complex research in writing is jargon--words and lexicons that the average reader might not recognize. 

The tapestry of language in literature is rich and varied, weaving in threads from diverse fields and lexicons. Among these threads, jargon holds a special place, offering texture and authenticity to the narrative fabric. The strategic use of specialized language can enhance the reader’s experience, adding depth and realism to the work. However, while powerful, this technique requires a nuanced approach to avoid alienating or confusing the audience.

This is just one of the topics I’ll be covering in my upcoming Science Poetry class, starting May 6 at The Poetry Barn. 

Science Poetry
DATE: 4 Weeks Starting May 6, 2024
TIME: Asynchronous, Self-Paced via The Poetry Barn
Price: $295-315

Science poetry uses fact to inform and delight the reader. From geography to nature studies to space—science poems dive into a wide variety of topics. As Jane Hirshfield says: “The work of a poet and the work of a scientist share many things. Both are investigations, both set out to answer a question that has not been framed in exactly this way before. The questions of poetry are not frameable by any other form of thinking than that of poetry, just as the questions of science cannot be framed without the techniques, ethics, and instruments of science.” In this workshop, we’ll discover ways to get inspired by science and create poems based on our wonderful world.

Specificity Matters: The Purpose of Jargon

In fictional writing, it’s essential to be as specific as possible. A vague word feels vague to the reader, while specific and detailed words create depth. Jargon is any specialized vocabulary such as technical terms, slang, and idioms. For example, if you were writing a poem about dark matter in space, you might use the phrase “gravitational attraction.” Without context, most readers will be unfamiliar with that phrase, but that doesn’t mean the average reader won’t be able to pick up on the clues a poem gives as to what a word means.

“Scientists and poets focus on details. Poetry is the opposite of woolly or vague. Vague poetry is bad poetry – which, as Coleridge said, is not poetry at all. Woolly science is not science.” –Ruth Padel

Jargon makes a piece of writing feel authentic. Even made-up jargon in science fiction can make that writing feel real because it shows the author has thought about how the world works. Jargon is immersive--it grounds the reader in the world, making it feel vivid and believable. Jargon can also help develop characters. For example, a spaceship captain that keeps referring to a spaceship part as a “dinglehopper” doesn’t sound like they know what they are doing! 

“One of the main functions of jargon is to exaggerate expertise.” ― Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Lastly, jargon can create a tone or mood. In a densely packed poem, jargon intensifies the “sound” of the poem. In a hard sci-fi short story, jargon can speed up the pace of the action, asking the reader to make inferences about what the word means. 

In fiction, jargon is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can enrich a narrative, offering a glimpse into the intricacies of different worlds, whether medical, legal, technological, or fantastical. It allows readers to eavesdrop on the authentic conversations of astronauts, lawyers, hackers, or wizards, making these characters and their experiences more tangible.

However, including too much jargon or its misuse can confuse readers, pulling them out of the story rather than drawing them in. The key is balance and clarity. Context is crucial. Too much “exposition” can weigh down the narrative, but a little explanation is appreciated now and then. How characters use, interact with, and react to science and technology is one way to explain the use of jargon. 

With its economy of words and emphasis on rhythm, sound, and imagery, poetry might seem an unlikely place for jargon. Yet, poets frequently draw on specialized vocabularies to create dense, layered meanings or to evoke specific times, places, or professions. Using jargon in poetry can surprise and delight the reader, offering new perspectives on familiar words and concepts. 

However, as in fiction, the poet must tread carefully, ensuring that jargon serves the poem’s broader aims and does not obscure its meaning. The challenge lies in making the unfamiliar familiar and guiding the reader to a deeper understanding of the poem’s themes through the precise, evocative use of specialized language.

Techniques for Using Jargon Effectively

Whether in fiction or poetry, there are strategies for using jargon effectively:

  • Introduce jargon sparingly and with purpose. Each term should enhance the reader’s understanding or appreciation of the story or poem.

  • Provide context or explanation through narrative, dialogue, or other literary techniques to ensure the reader can grasp the meaning of specialized terms.

  • Use jargon to deepen character development and setting by having characters interact with and react to technical elements.

  • Read widely in the genre or field to understand how successful authors and poets incorporate jargon into their work.

The Word Palette: A Writing Exercise to Try Out

While researching the subject of your writing, make a note of interesting words that sound evocative. Read the word’s definition in the dictionary to make sure you understand its meaning. Once you have a list of several intriguing words, create a “word bank” or list of jargon words. 

Next, write one of the jargon words in the middle of a blank page of paper. Then, write any associated words that come to mind for free. See the image below for an example I did with “gravitational attraction”:

Some unexpected words popped into my mind as I created this mind map. This is an exercise I often do before I start writing a poem. It helps free up my imagination, and the act of free imagination – and refusing to stop writing down words – often helps break open my creative mind.

Words that I found interesting from my “word palette” that arose are wights, rings, spark, graft, sour, scream, skid, apron, drought, moors, and endless. These are words that I probably wouldn’t have arrived at by just writing about my chosen phrase of “gravitational attraction.”

The concept here is to choose a word, think of the first word it reminds you of, write it down, and continue until you’re tapped.

For example, I wrote: Gravitational Attraction>force>weights>wights>ghosts>haunted house>horror movies>final girl>running through the woods.

This is meant to be a fun exercise to free up your mind. As Kathy Fish (a flash fiction writer who uses this technique often) says, “Using words drawn from the subconscious leads to deep, startling work that surprises the writers themselves.”

When using jargon, the reader will fill in gaps in understanding with their own associations. How you juxtapose a jargon word can explain its meaning. For example, “gravitational attraction” can be understood by the meaning of the two words: gravitational (having to do with gravity) and attraction (two things pulled together by nature). 

Jargon, when used judiciously, can be a powerful tool in fiction and poetry, offering authenticity, depth, and richness to the literary experience. The key is to balance specialized language with the need for clarity and accessibility, ensuring that all readers can navigate the text and appreciate its nuances. By mastering this balance, writers can fully harness the potential of jargon to enhance their storytelling.

Upcoming Workshops from Holly Lyn Walrath

If you enjoyed this newsletter, consider upgrading to leave me a tip and help me smash the patriarchal parsnips:


or to participate.