Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.
– Stephen King
I have a daily quote widget thing on my Google homepage and this one was one it one day last week. It struck me, so I wrote it down to blog about one day this week.
As writers our bread and butter comes down to words and word choice. The difference between good prose and bad prose usually boils down to word choice and grammar.
Example: Clayton Barrie should have been a cowboy. His whipcord body ended in a pair of boots and began with a face lined from years of windburn. Thinning steel gray hair hung a bit too long past the collar of his button down shirt. But his flint-colored eyes were sharp as he introduced himself. (From my latest completed manuscript, House of Cards).
This says quite a bit more than: Clayton Barrie was thin and tan with longish hair and gray eyes. He wore boots.
That’s an exaggeration, of course (though there are probably people out there somewhere who would describe him that way). Anyway, you can see the difference in word choice. The first has a lot more visual impact than the second.
But the thing King’s quote got me thinking about is what about those times where we find ourselves constantly using the same word to describe something? Every writer has one (or, more likely, several). Those fall back words. One of mine is “murmur” and Pot busts me on it regularly. I read about one writer this summer who had issues with verbs of motion and made a list of some new ones to use (like swaggered, ambled, gamboled) that she posted near her computer. I can see King’s point. Some people are overly reliant on the thesaurus and the may choose a synonym that doesn’t really fit at all, just because they need a different word. You can see where this has happened when all of the sudden there’s a fifty cent word thrown in the middle of a bunch of nickels and dimes and pennies. So on that front, yeah, I agree with him.
But sometimes a thesaurus is an invaluable tool. It’s helpful for figuring out that word you can’t quite remember that’s on the tip of your tongue. Or perhaps other ways to describe something. I confess I tend to use a thesaurus a whole lot more in my professional academic and technical writing (where I’m usually trying to paraphrase someone–SUCH a pain in the butt) than I do in my fiction. Unless there’s a specific word I’m looking for, most of the time I can think of what I want, or ask Pot and she’ll spit out something that’s perfect. I don’t normally have to turn to Rogets. Or more more likely www.thesaurus.com. If the writing is going well, then the words are usually just there. And if it’s not…I’ll come back to it when I’m in edit mode and working on tightening up the prose. So I think there is a place for a thesaurus on every writer’s bookshelf. That and a good dictionary. And of course, the best way to avoid the issue of needing a thesaurus is to build your own vocabulary. And that means read, read read! Always a gratifying proposition.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this about me. I haven’t mentioned using the thesaurus lately, have I? Remember how I used to open up Word and open up a window with Thesaurus.com while I waited for my document to come up? I don’t think I’ve touched it for a month at least.
For me, using the thesaurus is definitely a matter of finding the right word. The one I know is out there and I can’t quite remember what it is. Not the one that sounds more intellectual– Ha! you know that’s not me– but the one that has just the right shade of meaning for what I’m trying to say.
So why haven’t I been using it? The better question is probably: Why was I so reliant on it before? Because I was so rusty. It had been so long since I had let myself just write. Blogging helped a lot in freeing me to put thoughts to words to keyboard and just let things flow, but my usable vocabulary had shrunk down to what I needed to communicate my own experience. Words to describe the things my characters deal with were no longer accessible. Like they had to be imported from a stored file.
I think pushing to write every day and get through this draft within a set time-frame has forced parts of my brain back into action. Or, in other words…
Thanks for sharing. I like the vivid description of Mr. Barrie. So much more interesting than the second one. The Stephen King quote has given me much food for thought. I’ll try to keep it in mind.
I use a thesaurus when I’m proof reading and find word repetition. I look up several words with the same or similar meaning and might change complete sentences or a paragraph. I don’t stop to do this when I’m writing because it disrupts the flow of thought too much. I’ve found it to be an invaluable tool to sometimes stimulate my thoughts in a new direction.
I disagree with King on this one–sort of. I think that using a thesaurus to find the right word is probably not the way to go but to use it to find a BETTER word can work just fine. The danger comes in using it and not knowing the best usage for the words you find. The Word thesaurus is terrible too…no one should use it, IMHO. Go back to the old standards, the original Rogets is amazing: http://www.bartleby.com/110/
I also use a massive synonym finder tome, which has been invaluable for me: http://www.amazon.com/Synonym-Finder-J-I-Rodale/dp/0446370290
In all cases though, I already have a word–I mostly just need a better one.
Arthur Plotnik’s new book Spunk & Bite has a whole chapter on this subject, actually, arguing specifically against King and why a thesaurus can be a great thing for writers. I found it to be one of the most useful chapters in the whole book.