The Thesaurus is Your Enemy

By |February 13th, 2012|About Writing|

Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. [Stephen King]

The thesaurus is a ferocious enemy of the novice writer. The adverb has long held the nemesis position, but I offer the thesaurus as a worthy contender.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that novice writers who choose to invest their creativity on a thesaurus are often defensive about it.

Below is an excerpt of a YA manuscript that I recently edited for a beginning writer:

Samuel’s nine-year-old body moved as fast as it could as he took off running down the block. It was a game of chase, and Maria was behind him. She ran with great precipitateness.

There’s more than one problem with the above excerpt, but since we’re focusing on the evil thesaurus, I’ll only pull out the most obvious peeve buried in these thirty-three words: the word precipitateness.

I saw “precipitateness” and suddenly I was no longer running with Samuel as far as his nine-year-old body could take him. Instead I’m going: Huh?

Yes, I know that precipitateness is a word. I even know what it means. But why is it sitting in this paragraph? A word as clunky and awkward as this should be living inside a medical journal or the Oxford English Dictionary, not in Samuel’s game of chase with Maria, unless they’re chasing bad writing technique.

I marked the word and explained why it didn’t work. In true defensive fashion, the writer mounted her defense—one that I’ve heard before when writers defend high-dollar words in otherwise casual prose. She said that I wasn’t giving young readers enough credit.

Blasphemy!

The trouble is she wasn’t giving herself enough credit. But it can be near impossible to explain such things when you’re battling against the comfortable weight of the thesaurus.

I have trouble understanding what writers don’t understand about the value of using the right words—and by “right words” I don’t mean words that a typical American adult would flunk on a spelling test. I’m talking about the real right words.

In my quest for understanding, I’ve broken down the various arguments I’ve heard from novice writers who are determined to keep a thesaurus within arm’s reach. I’ve offered logical counterarguments. At least I hope I have.

  • I don’t want to keep using the same word. This is the most common defense against poorly used dialogue tags. Writers get tired of saying ‘he said’ and ‘she said,’ so they cleverly insert substitutions, like ‘he howled,’ ‘she screamed,’ ‘he growled’ or ‘she whispered.’ Here’s the problem: They aren’t clever. They are the opposite of clever. If you’re writing good dialogue scenes, you won’t need clarifiers like “howled” or “screamed” and if you do, then you aren’t writing good dialogue scenes.
  • I want the writing to stand out. Writing doesn’t stand out because of the individual words you use. It stands out because of how you use them.
  • I don’t want the writing to be simple. Unfortunately when you substitute simple words with complicated ones, you come off as simple. It’s ironic, I know. But it’s true. Imagine you’re having dinner with someone you just met. Instead of saying “I love this restaurant. I hear it has the best food in town. I suggest the fish,” the person says, “I have great adulation for this establishment. I’ve apprehended information that it has preeminent comestibles. I adduce lepoisson.” What are you going to think? If you’re anything like me and most other people, you’re going to think two things: 1) Why is this person talking like that? 2) What’re they trying to prove? The answer to the first question is that they have taken the easy road rather than the creative one and all that has been proved is that they don’t trust themselves enough to have a compelling conversation without relying on fancy words.
  • I read Great Expectations or [insert laborious novel here] and it had big words that I didn’t understand. Don’t compare your work to other writers, especially if they are widely considered to be one of the greatest novelists in literary history. Just because James Joyce wrote a 265,000-word novel doesn’t mean that your WIP is the next Ulysses. You can’t break the rules unless you know what the rules are.

I wonder how much creativity would come from the minds of writers if they didn’t rely on crutches. We all have them. Thankfully mine isn’t a thesaurus. I learned long ago that more often than not, a dollar-fifty word is worth less than a penny.

_________________________________________________

This was reprinted from Flash Fiction Chronicles.