I am on blog holiday while meeting a deadling for Evil Day Job. Please enjoy this rerun of one of my past posts.
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’m one to turn to the thesaurus for that word I know exists, but I just can’t seem to remember. It’s not usually because I need a different word that means the same thing because I’ve already used up my quota of the original; it’s to find that word that I know has the right shade of meaning or tone for what I’m trying to say.
I know that I turn to the thesaurus a lot more when I’m just getting back into writing. If I’ve been writing regularly for a time, my vocabulary seems much more accessible. But if I’ve been on hiatus (again), then it’s buried in mothballs back there somewhere, and it’s easier to visit thesaurus.com than to dig it out of the mess.
👿 “Too Mad”, says B. You know how anti-emoticon I am, but she insists I place this one, so there you are.
Back to the subject– you know that I think one can EASILY go overboard with language and description. A middle road, possibly one that meanders closer to Simple Town, is often what I prefer. I think it’s partly reactionary on my part, the result of too much of flowery language in the 80’s combined with my dislike of academic writing. I’m not impressed by the use of 50cent vocabulary, especially where it sticks out, and I LOATHE hyperbole. I don’t like it when characters who don’t really matter to the story come overdressed (in language).
I guess I appreciate plain-speaking in my reading like I do in my dealings with people. Rich and vivid description is good, but don’t forget that you’re telling me a story.