In 1988 the The Writer’s Handbook reprinted an article by Stephen King entitled, Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: In Ten Minutes. One of the most famous quotes to come out of that article is: “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.”
To this I say:
For as long as I can remember words have fascinated me. Unfortunately, I sounded more like Vizzini from “The Princess Bride” than Noah Webster. If I had a nickel for every time someone said “I don’t think that means what you think it means” I would be a very rich girl.
If you’ve never seen the movie I feel sorry for you, you’re missing out. I could write about the brilliance that is “The Princess Bride” but I’ll save that for another post. Here is a little montage of our Vizzini and his favorite word:
My problem was that while growing up I was constantly around adults. I was captivated by their manner of speech and the words that they used. They sounded so grown up and sophisticated. I envied them. I would hear a word, like the sound of it, think I got the grasp of its meaning and then spend the next few days slipping in whenever I could. More often than not I wasn’t using it properly. Luckily for me as I got older I’m a little better at discerning what words mean and using them properly. And if I still don’t have a clue, I turn to my good friend, Teddy.
That’s right people, I nicknamed the Thesaurus on my computer. We all have our quirks, this one is only the tip of the iceberg with me. 🙂
It was during NaNoWriMo when I started to realize that I reached for the thesaurus or the dictionary more than the normal person. I think always being corrected while growing up gave me a complex. Now when I go to write a word that may be questionable I’m reaching for the reference material to make sure its correct. That’s not to say that I immediately go to the thesaurus to inflate my work.
I try to only use it when I just can’t get the word that I want. The simple, common word keeps popping up and I know there is another say but I just can’t seem to find it. That’s when I consult Teddy.
When King wrote about throwing out the thesaurus he was discussing the first draft of a writer’s work. He emphasized not worrying about using the perfect word or even the right spelling of the word. He’d rather you just get your thoughts out and then go back to edit.
His concern was that by stopping to check a thesaurus you were stopping the flow of writing, which is a valid concern. However, my brain usually comes to a screeching halt when I can’t get the right word. I need to look it up or be driven mad the rest of the day with a word that is just out of my reach. Also, there are times when I keep on using the same word over and over again that its even distracting to me; I need to stop and find a new one.
But that’s me. I understand that stopping to go through a dictionary or thesaurus can kill the muse for some, but for me it helps more than it hurts. Then again, I’m also a girl who reads the thesaurus during down time at rehearsals. Sad, but true, ask Savana, she caught me one Sunday afternoon.
I also see another problem that comes with consulting a thesaurus too often.
Once you open that book to find one word its very easy to keep going back to find a bigger, better word. Before you know it your manuscript is filled with big, impressive words that stunt the flow of the story and make your characters sound pretentious, ostentatious, pompous, orotund, magniloquent…catch my drift?
However, there’s one last part to King’s popular quote that I don’t agree with. The quote ends with “There is no exception to this rule.”
Well, that’s good for you, Mr. King, if every word is at the tip of your tongue at every second of every single day. But I’m surrounded by jibberish and nonsensical blabbering that I’m lucky my manuscript doesn’t involve run on sentences of “ning ning ning tabwa mmmmm mommy, mommy, mommy, click, click, click.” (Our one year old has taken to clicking her tongue as a means of communicating.)
Do you agree with Stephen King and prefer not to use a thesaurus to find words? Do you use the thesaurus when you write? Do you like using words that aren’t as common to add some spice to your work? Have you used the word “chortle” lately? I have, its a great word. We should all chortle at least once a day, it keeps you young. *chortle*