Having a Thesaurus Does Not Make You a Writer

>> Monday, September 21, 2009

First, before we get to the meat of this, I got my exercise video (late) today, so, starting tomorrow, I cannot write my blogs unless I've done the workout. I will be going through the tutorial later tonight. So, if I'm not on, you know, I've been bad or I'm just too exhausted. Here's hoping I show up.

Today's topic could actually count as a soapbox but I'm going to think of it as a writing tip instead because it's really bothering me (i.e., don't want to wait until next Sunday). I have a pet peeve, though I think most writers do, and that's about writers who think "great writing" means "stringing long and pretentious sounding words together even if the meaning makes no sense." I can't read such a writer without envisioning someone with a thesaurus looking synonyms with no concept of the nuances of the words. Bzzt! Wrong answer!

Language is beautiful, flexible and does the near impossible by making people, who have never existed, seem real and painting scenes that have never been with a vivid brush. But that flexibility and incredible versatility means you need to use it judiciously. Mark Twain (who knew his language) said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." He was not wrong.

Let me give you some egregious examples:

"a ruddy young girl dithers, pale and fair-haired" - Don't use words to describe someone that are mutually exclusive. Ruddy, literally, means red and denotes someone (or something) with a reddish complexion or appearance (often specifically healthy). Need I point out the contrast with that description and "pale"? My guess is that the author looked up a synonym for the term "coarse" as in a commoner and ruddy came up as ruddy is often used to describe a commoner who spends his day in the sun. Clearly, not applicable here.

"rode her horse over verdant green grass" - I read this on the first page of a book and had to set it down immediately. Verdant means "green" - not a particular shade of green, just green, so adding it to the sentence accomplishes nothing since green's already there. In fact, unless the grass a particular shade of green, like jade or emerald, or some unexpected color (like purple) the green in the sentence is fairly superfluous. And the friend that loaned this book to me was an English teacher.

"the child lumbered nimbly across the room" - seriously, folks, not every synonym for "walked" is appropriate. Most five-year-olds don't lumber unless they're simulating a dinosaur or carrying something twice their size; however, in the unlikely event that they are lumbering, they are not likely to do so nimbly. In a similar way, "marching lightly" or "traipsing ponderously" - both of which I've seen - make no damn sense.

There are more examples, but I'm trying to forget them. Here's the thing, by all means, use descriptive, nuanced, even advanced language. The right word in the right place can do a great deal to evoke an image, describe action, breathe life into a character, but you should never use a word without an understanding of its meaning and its nuances. Finding it in a list of synonyms is no guarantee that they share identical meanings. Use any words that add to the picture, but no more than needed and only if it adds something.

There are some that will be impressed, awed, at a flood of big obscure words because they don't understand them. Such readers might mistake such tactics for good writing, but it fails the most important test. Does it communicate?

If someone misuses language, the only ones who appreciate it are those that don't understand the words anyway.


  • Jen

    Less is certainly more. I only use big words when talking to my ex husband and only because it frustrates him so. I try to be concise but fail horribly at that. I don't use a thesaurus unless I have used a word too often and need to use it again. Great tip.

  • Richard

    Here here!

  • Roy

    Heh, heh! I think "lumbered nimbly" is gonna stick with me for a long time. That one is so weird it's brilliant!

  • Stephanie B

    I have known a few writers that managed to find new and unusual ways of describing things that were so weird they were perfect. Georgette Heyer, a personal favorite, was one of them.

    A character will be pretending to be frightened and Georgette had her "shriek artistically" and use other words in interesting ways that made me laugh out loud - and imagine the scene exactly.

  • Quadmama

    When I was a news reporter there was another reporter doing a story about a suspicious death. In his story he talked about how neighbors "smelled a bad aroma." He never did understand why we laughed our butts off. He said he wanted another word for "odor" and that was the first thing that came to mind.

  • The Mother

    I have no idea who you're reading, but I certainly wouldn't have made it past the first paragraph.

    That stuff annoys the snot out of me.

    I think descriptive writing is hard; I think lots of writers agree. So they overcompensate with pretentiousness.

    Just say what you want people to know. Then move on to the action parts. People skip descriptions anyway.

  • Shakespeare

    Deem me flabbergasted that thy preferences do not easily bend toward more florid modes of explication. I alone must find superfluous and erroneously overflowing descriptive expression endearing to the extreme.

  • Stephanie B

    "And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
    Come to my arms my beamish boy!
    O frabjous day! Callou! Callay!
    He chortled in his joy."

    You find anything you want to endearing. I shall not (though the Jabberwock tickles me for reasons unknown).

  • Stepterix

    The best guide to better composition is Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. I keep this slim volume close at hand whenever I am writing. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone wishing to improve their written English.

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