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Mauled by a Thesaurus

by schefflera


Many frightening monsters roam Neopia, some more malevolent than others. Some must be avoided at all costs; others, at least in the short term or in special circumstances, have their uses. The thesaurus falls in the latter category. Writers and their work are both its clients and its prey. Properly approached and judiciously used, it may allow an author to lend precisely the right note to an article or story... but grow too greedy or careless, and you may find your work mauled and mangled. I have seen far too many promising works that appear to have been mauled by a thesaurus, often without their authors' knowledge. I beg you to guard your work against this horrific threat.

All right, enough silliness. I'm here to give you writing advice. As a matter of fact, I'm going to stop right here and give you the point of this article in one sentence, in case you're short on time.

Don't use a word unless you're sure you know how.

Still with me? Good.

There really are a lot of stories that look like they've been mauled by a thesaurus. Sometimes the author really was using a thesaurus; sometimes it's a matter of false cognates -- words that sound like they should mean one thing (especially by comparison to another language) and turn out to mean something else entirely. Sometimes authors really think they know a word perfectly well, but something just goes wrong. The end result, however, is a story filled with fancy words that don't mean what they were supposed to.

The problem stems from a perfectly reasonable desire and a bad approach. Variety in one's writing is a worthwhile pursuit. Some words are overused and imprecise. It really is a good thing to use words that mean exactly what you want, words that are vivid and dance off the page.

Consulting a thesaurus, however, is really not the best way to spice up your writing. Teachers may have suggested it; I've even seen an article in the Neopian Times that recommended it. I disagree, and I'm telling you why.

"Synonyms" do not always mean exactly the same thing.

You may object to this claim; after all, you may protest, aren't synonyms by definition words that mean the same thing? Well, yes, they are. But there are shades of meaning. The most common words and the first ones most people learn, as children or when studying a foreign language, are often ones with very general meanings.

I've seen people suggest, as an exercise to improve the precision of your word use, trying to write an entire passage without ever using the word "get." Instead of getting on a ship, one would board the ship. Instead of getting someone a gift, one would buy someone a gift. Instead of getting up, one would stand up. Surely you would never take this to mean that "board," "buy," and "stand" can be freely substituted for one another... yet people do very similar things all the time. Dialogue tags are frequent victims, as even teachers have been known to advise finding other ways to express "say" or "ask." As an exercise, this is fine; as a general writing principle, it doesn't work so well. Sometimes all you mean is "say" or "ask" (or for that matter "get"), and a more specific substitute isn't necessary or desirable.

A thesaurus can be very useful if you know there is a word that means exactly what you want to say, but you just can't put your finger on it. If you try to use it to enliven your vocabulary by finding "synonyms" you don't know for the common words that come to mind, however, you will not look sophisticated. You will just end up looking silly. You may get lucky a few times, but it's all too easy to pick a word that reflects only one facet of the common word's meaning (and not the one you wanted), or one that means the right thing but can't be substituted into the sentence without rearranging the structure.

If you are doing this, please stop.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't use less common words, or that you should write monotonously. Variety is good; a wide vocabulary is useful and should be used! But there are better ways to approach either goal than by opening a thesaurus and haphazardly substituting one entry in a list of synonyms for another.

The first thing to do is to try varying your sentence structure. If you simply end every line of dialogue with something along the lines of "he said" or "she said" or "said Jeran" or "said Hannah," then yes, your writing may look a little dull. The main problem, however, is not the word "said." The main problem is that you're constructing all your sentences the same way. You could instead place the dialogue tag in the middle of the line occasionally, if you punctuate it correctly and if there's a place where this gives the sentence a good rhythm. (This tactic is particularly good if you want to suggest a pause in a place where there is little or no grammatical excuse for punctuation.) You could -- and probably should -- include more narration than just the dialogue tag for some lines: does the point-of-view character have any unspoken thoughts, feelings, or observations? Is the character speaking also doing something else -- fidgeting, standing up to cross the room, twitching an ear, drawing back a bowstring, smiling? You may sometimes even omit the dialogue tag altogether, either leaving the line of speech bare or attaching it only to narration of the speaker's actions.

What you definitely should not do is replace "he said, she said, he said, she said, said Johnny" with "he annnounced, she protested, he explained, she vowed, accused Johnny." If your sentence structures already vary and you've narrated plenty of action, these verbs may blend in and fit nicely into your style--provided, of course, that you used them correctly. If you leave your dialogue otherwise bare and unadorned, however, then the repeated use of descriptive dialogue tags will probably look strained and tend to emphasize the way your characters are speaking at the expense of what they're saying.

Dialogue tags aren't the only place this applies, of course. If you're using the same formula for every sentence of description or action or feeling, your writing will not be vastly improved by the use of the longest or most obscure words available. Worse yet, any mistakes will stand out even more than they would if word choice were carrying less weight.

The second thing is to use words you do know, if they fit, even if they weren't the first to come to mind. Before you consult anyone else, in person or in a book, try to think whether you already know how to make the sentence more interesting. If you look back at my examples of how to substitute other words for "get," none of my suggestions are particularly unusual words, but they're still more specifically suited to the context than "get."

The third is to increase the number of words and sentence structures you know how to use. One of the best ways to do this, perhaps the very best way, is to read a lot of well-written work in the language you intend to use. This will allow you to get a feel for a variety of ways to construct sentences and the effect they may have on the reader; it will also allow you to pick up from context what words mean (though you may want to check a dictionary to be sure) and, just as importantly, how to use them -- what types of sentence structure they belong in, what extra words they might need or not need. You can also use vocabulary lists, dictionaries, and yes, even thesauruses; you'll be a lot safer finding a new word in a thesaurus and looking up how to use it than you will just swapping one word for another.

In short, don't let your story be mauled by a thesaurus. It's better to use a simple, common word you know than to misuse a "vocabulary word"; in fact, thinking of a word as "a vocabulary word" may be a danger sign, as it shows that you aren't entirely comfortable with it and may not be able use it naturally -- so be careful. Learning new words and how to use them so that you are comfortable with them is an excellent practice... but remember that vocabulary is not the only source of variety in writing. You shouldn't be afraid to use a long, unusual, or precise word if you do know it, but sometimes a simple and well-known word may be the most powerful.

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