As a result, I had developed a fairly chunky vocabulary by about third grade. I knew most of the little words, and lots of the big ones, too. The problem is, when you're a third grade boy, and you're already known for sitting in a corner with a novel, having a big vocabulary is NOT a good thing. You get questions like, "Why do you use so many big words?" And, "You just use a lot of big words to show off." Or, "What are you talking about?"
No kid likes to attract that kind of attention, or at least I didn't, so I can actually remember making a conscious decision to use fewer big words. And to swear more. Lots more (that part I liked). Pretty soon I could swear like a marine, and by sixth grade, I like to think that you could have talked to me and never known I'd read a book in my entire life.
Now that I'm an adult, I still have echoes of this. I still cringe sometimes when I hear a three-dollar word creep out. I know this doesn't make sense completely—people tend to appreciate well-spoken adults, and they sort of expect writers to be word-nerds—but it's a lingering effect from being the bookish kid.
But on paper ... now that's a whole different ballgame. I'm a total word hound, and when I say I'm editing, what that means is I'm usually combing the book looking to replace and upgrade single words. See, I believe in precision, especially in verbs. I believe very strongly that there is a world of difference between "crying out" and "yelling" and "screaming." And sometimes people lope, while other times they jog, and yet still other times they might run or sidle. And I believe IT MATTERS which one they actually do—these aren't synonyms. (Don't even get me started on the whole idea of thesauri ...)
I respect writers who choose their words carefully, and I'm almost instantly bored by prose that lacks any specificity of description. As a reader, I can almost feel the writer casting around, spilling whole paragraphs while they look for the right few words. Sometimes it's sloppy editing, sometimes lazy writing, and other times it's just a lack of vocabulary. Even in simple books, aimed at children, I think word choice matters a great deal.
I'm afraid this might sound elitist, but I really don't mean it like that. After all, I'm the kid who taught myself to avoid big words.... To me, this a craft question, and this has everything to do with how good you are and how good you can be. If I was a brick layer, I'd want to know all the kinds of brick available. If I was a painter, I'd want to know every shade of white I could memorize. So as a writer, there should be a hunger to know every word (impossible, of course) and a willingness to spend time looking for just that perfect one.
So you see, I'm not really ranting. I'm exhorting.