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Thoughts on glossaries?

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I was just wondering, does anyone have any opinions on glossaries at the backs of novels?  I have read three books that have them recently (1 lower MG, 1 YA and 1 adult).  I had never thought of them before, but now I'm wondering if it might be a good idea for a project that I'm revising. 

On the one hand, I feel like if you use them for imparting really important information, or if they are required for your story to be understood, then perhaps that's a sign that there's something wrong in the text.  On the other, if a glossary doesn't add anything important, why have it?  And yet... I've read some books I loved, but could have followed more easily if they'd included a glossary, and perhaps it can save on repetition while also accommodating the fact that different people have different abilities to remember and retrieve information.

I am thinking about building a glossary as a useful exercise, regardless of whether it makes it into the final draft, but I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on the issue.
#1 - August 31, 2013, 08:53 AM

I have a weird relationship with glossaries. Many of them are placed at the end of a book, and I don't notice them until I turn to the final pages, but I enjoy reviewing the weird words that appeared in the novel and seeing if I understood them fully. The glossaries at the beginning, though, I actually tend to skip because I am afraid they will give away bits of the story that I would rather discover for myself. I only return to them when words are difficult to pronounce or if I am failing to understand what a word means as I delve in deeper.
#2 - August 31, 2013, 08:57 AM

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If you think a glossary might be right for your project, I'd say make one. During the publication process, the decision will be made whether or not to use it, and it will be tweaked like everything else, but at least you'll have something to work with.

As a reader, I prefer glossaries in the back, because having them in the front could give an off-putting academic feel to what is supposed to be pleasure-reading. OTOH, when they're in the back you may not know they're there till you've soldiered through the book. I really do appreciate them, though, for a quick reminder of the meaning of unfamiliar terms. As for placement decisions, fortunately we have editors to help with all this.  :yup
#3 - August 31, 2013, 09:52 AM
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This goes under JMP(=just my opinion) and I don't see it as right or wrong:
So please, no  :bricks
I went through some lengths NOT to have or need a glossary in my published MG, even as I had to use some foreign words and terms. This , after reading another published MG from a similar setting that used a glossary at the end of a book, and rather heavily. My kids read that other one and said it was just annoying.

I think that in non-fiction or educational market books this academic practice is not only fine, it's almost expected. But do you enjoy reading straight fiction that requires a glossary?

Non fiction is different. Side bars in PB are wonderful, I think. I just feel that stories meant to entertain first (even though most kid-lit has a pedagogic function) should be glossary free.
#4 - August 31, 2013, 11:39 AM

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My husband, who is university-educated and has an extensive vocabulary, had trouble reading a novel by Umberto Eco. Eco used words that even my husband didn't know and couldn't figure out from the context. Eco did this a lot. There was no glossary. At first, it sent my husband to the dictionary and he made a list of new words. But eventually he gave up on the novel.

If a well-read adult will give up on a book with hard words, you can imagine what it will do to a kid who is a new reader!

I suggest you cut back a lot on the hard words and ensure that the necessary ones are understood in context, or translate on the spot in brackets if they are foreign words. Then you can have a glossary if you want, so the reader can check the words after reading the book.

(Edited to add: I assume you are talking about a novel. In non-fiction, new words and concepts are great and can be explained all you want.)
#5 - September 01, 2013, 11:26 AM
« Last Edit: September 01, 2013, 11:29 AM by Owl »

Barb  :owl



Thanks for your thoughts!

HDWestland - I had the same experience of not realising there was a glossary until I finished the book with two of the ones I mentioned, and now I'm wondering how many books have had glossaries without me realising at all.

My glossary would be mostly a list of alien species and what they look like, since there are a lot of different species in my story and although I describe them in the text I don't want to load down the writing too much with description, or to start being repetitive.  I have also  reached a difficult chapter in my revision, so I will admit that I may just be thinking of ways to pretend to myself that I am working while not doing what I should be doing  :-|
#6 - September 01, 2013, 01:51 PM

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My book has a number of Korean words. The reader could use context clues to determine the meanings for the words but my editor asked for me to write one for the book. So mine has one now. Personally, I think it's kind of cool. I would just be careful it's not too long or overwhelming.
#7 - September 01, 2013, 02:56 PM
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I think glossaries should be reserved for foreign, scientific, or technical terms that most adults, let alone children would not run into in everyday reading or talking. 

A word that is above the 'reading level' of the book is okay as long as the book is not full of them so that it makes it unreadable.  If you are making up your own language or terminology, I think you need to make it clear somehow in the book itself without a lot of words.  Let the kids imagination take them to what you are describing.  Or find an illustrator to do the drawings of what you envision.
#8 - September 01, 2013, 05:12 PM
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My editor was the one who suggested using a glossary in Saving Armpit. It's a sports-words glossary for readers who may no be familiar with the baseball terminology in the book.

I was unsure of using a glossary for fiction, but several reviews have mentioned its usefulness, so I guess she was right. :)
#9 - September 02, 2013, 04:53 AM
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When I was a boy I loved things like glossaries! That said, my opinion is that a reader should be able to read and understand everything without needing to turn to the glossary. The glossary for me as a boy was just the collection of foreign words or weird technical terms in a book that, for some reason, had learning those things as part of the fun of reading the book. Looking at the glossary was just fun because it had all the words in one place so I could learn them and think about them more.

I think your idea of listing lots of info about each alien species is fine and fun. Of course, whether it gets used in the end or where it gets put is something decided very late, and I'd try to make sure the whole story can be read without the extra info.

And myself I'd say doing it as a sort of fun break while you're stuck in a tough section of the story sounds perfect. It lets you explore and imagine your aliens further--who knows you might end up including some of that right in the story in the right place. It's world-building even if it never gets used. And getting the details about aliens right and thinking carefully about them can only help. Of course, eventually it's time to get back to the thick of the story : ) .
#10 - September 03, 2013, 05:08 AM
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I'll echo Keith's sentiments here. Even as a child I enjoyed the glossary in some novels. But then, I love asides and tidbits. I read author notes, end notes, acknowledgments ...

#11 - September 03, 2013, 08:21 AM
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