The Thesaurus Is Your Best Friend? Inconceivable!

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*

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About Karen DeLabar

A writer who divides her time between her family and her computer while sparing some time to her other loves of theatre, books and scotch.
This entry was posted in Blog, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Thesaurus Is Your Best Friend? Inconceivable!

  1. Savana Quinn says:

    First, I have to say that she isn’t joking, she really was sitting at rehearsal reading the thesaurus.

    Of course, I can’t talk. I love words, too. I prefer my computers thesaurus to my hard copy, but use both often. I also get a daily email from dictionary.com with the word of the day–just for fun. (Blog idea–I could try to use the word of the day in my blog every day for a week. 🙂 That could get interesting!)

    So, while I have a lot of respect for Stephen King, I am gong to chose to ignore this piece of advice. I love my thesaurus too much not to. (oh, and I have been using chortle left and right since it showed up in an email from you last week.)

    For anyone who really likes words, there is a great website, savethewords.org, that allows you to “adopt” a word that was once part of the English language, but isn’t really used anymore. (Some of them aren’t even in the dictionary anymore.) Just something fun to check out. 🙂

    • Kaye Peters says:

      I love that website, savethewords.org. During NaNoWriMo I saved a couple, I felt it was my duty as a writer to save as many words as I can. And who can turn a blind eye when the words are literally calling out to you to save them?

      I that’s a great idea to incorporate your word a day into your blog posts. Little exercises are not only beneficial, but fun as well!

  2. Fallon says:

    I’m a word lover too. And there are times when I can’t find just the right word I want to use and have to go find it or I just can’t continue past that point. I usually use the thesaurus on my word processor because it’s right there. I don’t usually use unusual words on purpose unless a character is trying to show off or that is just their personality.

    and don’t feel bad. I used to read encyclopedias and the dictionary for fun.

    • Kaye Peters says:

      I’m glad I’m in good company when it comes to reading reference materials for fun. It’s educational and a lot of times I find words that are interesting or just fun to say. 🙂

      I have dictionary.com bookmarked, as well as the thesaurus provided there. My Mac’s dictionary is always up and running, ready to help me when I need it, which can be often.

  3. Lisa says:

    I think that balance is needed. If King’s advice is about flow, then I agree to some extent. Get something down and then fix it. But, at the same time, you can’t flow if you are stuck on repetition or with boring words. The problem lies when people have no judgement. If you use the thesaurus to find the right word (which I do, by the way) than that’s great. If you use the thesaurus to find the longest, most complicated word (as some of my students do) then the thesaurus needs to be hidden from you. So I partially agree with King, in the sense that you don’t need an obscure term to replace the beauty of some simple words. All you need is the word that sings.

    • Kaye Peters says:

      Very nicely put, Lisa. I especially like your last sentence “All you need is the word that sings.” Makes me smile. 🙂 (See?)

    • Savana Quinn says:

      I love that phrase, “the word that sings.” Awesome! 🙂

      I agree, it is important to choose a word that flows; a word that is fitting. I try not to use words that are obscure in my writing, but sometimes even the most obvious word will escape me. That is where my thesaurus can be a girl (or guy)’s best friend!

  4. 2blu2btru says:

    Babies chortle all the time! It’s a wonderful habit to cultivate. Most people just aren’t that happy, though, so I rarely get to use it to describe adult actions. I am a real wordsmith. I often having conversations where people ask me to explain a word, or will look up a word I say to them later. I love learning new words and finding opportunities to fit them in. I think my favorite find was “ameliorate”–you can get a fair amount of use out of that (for a narration, maybe, but rarely for a character).

    All that being said, in the first draft/initial stages of a manuscript, I do not use the thesaurus. What I will do, though, is look up concepts of specific details, because I don’t want to lose the meaning or sentiment of what I’m trying to convey. If I can approximate the word I want, I’ll just use what’s handy and replace it later, but if it’s a specific kind of rock (no, I don’t write about them, but I can’t think of anything else at the mometn), I will look it up. I don’t know if that makes sense. It did in my head.

    I think each author should do what works for them. If not knowing the exact word busts you out of your writing groove and not looking it up causes your writing to stall, by all means look it up. I would suggest you study the dictionary and thesaurus when you aren’t writing, though, so that you can have the words you want more readily available.

    • Kaye Peters says:

      You made perfect sense. 🙂

      I have to admit that there are times when the words are flowing like Niagara Falls and a concept or word is just out of reach but the momentum of my writing is forcing me to forge ahead without it. I usually highlight the section with a note about what I was trying to get at just so I can continue on. It doesn’t happen often, like I said in my post, my brain usually freezes until I get the word, or something really, really close to it.

      I’m going to point Savana to your last paragraph about studying the dictionary and thesaurus when you’re not writing because her and her husband had a good time making fun of me for my reading material. 😉

  5. Tombstone says:

    I disagree with Stephen King. He notes the same rule in his book On Writing (which I must say if fabulous). And although I agree with most of what he says, this rule is not one of them.

    As writers we are continually learning. We stockpile the tools and techniques of the craft so that we may use them every day or when we are caught in a bind. I personally love the thesaurus and dictionary. If these materials help me learn a new word for present or future use I am a happy man. If I don’t need the thesaurus, guess what? I can be just as happy? Either way, life is good.

    Someone should remind Stephen King that rules are meant to be broken.

    • Savana Quinn says:

      I loved that book, and I agreed with most of what he said as well, but definitely not in this case. The idea that there are no exceptions to a rule is off base, especially on something like this. If a quick look at the thesaurus will keep writers block away, why wouldn’t you go for it? In my opinion, it is better than sitting and staring at a blinking cursor as it taunts you because you can’t come up with the right word!

    • Kaye Peters says:

      Great comment, especially about rules being made to be broken. Truer words were never spoken 😉

      There are so many wonderful words out there why wouldn’t you want to familiarize yourself with as many as you can? We never stop learning, if we do we’re dead. (You can’t get much writing done then, now can you?)

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  6. Pingback: Don’t Be a Mitsy | Have Coffee… Will Write

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