When recently invited to read my work, I chose a scene from my novel-in-progress where my two main characters get caught in a storm in the South Atlantic. The scene comes halfway through the novel, so I gave some context: “They’re on a 27’ sailboat, in the middle of the ocean.” And then I read.

Thirty seconds in, I saw confused faces in the audience. “Shit,” I said into the mic. “Hang on a sec.” I felt a brief glossary was necessary: “a mainsail is the big sail on a boat; it’s pronounced mainsel. A jib is the smaller sail up front. A tiller is basically the boat’s steering wheel. To tack is to turn the boat into the wind. Uh,” I added, “everything else should make sense.”

This got me thinking about esoteric terminology in general. How much is too much in a literary work? How much is too little? You certainly don’t want to insult your reader with vague diction: he put the sail over there; he moved the boat to the left. On the other hand, you don’t want to present your readers with a doctoral thesis in sailing terminology.

But sailing terminology itself is beautiful, both ridiculously archaic (look up “cunt splice”) while also amazingly practical. For example, close hauled means you’re sailing as “close” to the wind as you possibly can, with all sails “hauled” in tight. I wanted to capture the elegance and unfamiliarity of the words without sending my reader running to Wikipedia (although their “Glossary of Nautical Terms” is particularly helpful).

I believe good writers instruct the reader about terms relevant to the story’s content. Moby Dick, for example, will teach you all the terms you ever wanted to know regarding the hunting, killing, and butchering of sperm whales. That novel uses an effective technique: Ishmael is new to sailing and whaling, so he’s forced to learn a new language specific to those endeavors— much like us, the readers. The novice character turned expert is a common approach when dealing with the unfamiliar.

But some authors eschew this method. In his wonderful novel, Outerbridge Reach, Robert Stone gives us sailing-specific language from the outset. The novel opens with the protagonist, Owen Browne, sailing a 45-foot sloop. In the second paragraph, Browne “cut his auxiliary and hoisted a mainsail and genoa.” A reader can guess that if a genoa is hoisted along with the mainsail, it’s probably another sail. But a genoa is a particular type of jib. It’s bigger than a normal jib and stretches back past the mast.

A few paragraphs later, Browne coasts “on a starboard tack.” Starboard is familiar enough, but starboard tack isn’t. It indicates the specific alignment of a boat with respect to the wind. Because wind direction is indicated from where it’s blowing, starboard tackmeans the wind is coming from the boat’s starboard. Later, we get the term unreefed, which is advanced-level sailing stuff. To reefmeans to temporarily shorten the height of the mainsail; it’s done to depower the boat in a storm to keep it from heeling too far. Tounreef, then, is the opposite: let that shit fly high.

There are hundreds more sailing-specific terms in Outerbridge Reach—their general meaning gleaned through context, but their specific meaning known only to readers familiar with sailing. This was a bold choice on Robert Stone’s part, but it establishes his chops as a sailor. And, since readers get the gist of these unfamiliar terms by Stone’s judicious sentence craft, they are buoyed through the story by good writing—not drowned in a sea of flotsam.

So, writing about subjects that deal with unfamiliar terminology—think business speak, medical, engineering, sports—is an issue of how to treat a reader. Inevitably you will teach them something. The novice-turned-expert approach is reliable, though in unskilled hands may appear patronizing. So, go for gold. Choose the precise word, the unequivocal, the exotic. Unreef yourself.

-Dan Szymczak