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Robert's Rules of Writing #3: Throw Out Your Thesaurus

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

I recently had a nice email discussion with a well-established, Hugo- and Nebula-Award winning novelist and short story writer. I complimented him on the readability of his prose. And he told me that one of his secrets is that he never uses a Thesaurus or the Thesaurus function on his word processor. His opinion is that if you have to stop to find a word, the reader will have to stop to understand the word. And the one thing he doesn't want to do is write prose that forces his readers to stop writing.

Robert Masello most definitely agrees with him. In his third rule, Masello advocates using the words that come most naturally to you when you write.

And I agree as well.

Some writers out there are beautiful stylists, crafting prose that dazzles the eye and delights the ear. And as much as I would like to count myself among their number, I know that I cannot. My style tends towards the plain, the ordinary, the unornamented -- and that is the only way I know how to write.

Furthermore, some stylists break through the barrier of beautiful prose and fall into the trap of extreme prose. I've picked up many a book or story, tried to read it, and felt turned away by the writer's attempts to present the most gorgeous, overrated prose -- at the expense of simply telling the story. If the words a writer chooses don't work towards that goal, they have no business being there. And if you feel the urge to go for the thesaurus, you should probably ignore it.

Of course, I will admit that there are exceptions to this rule. If you're trying to write a pretentious character who prides himself on his advanced vocabulary -- say, perhaps, a Harvard graduate -- then, absolutely, equip him with the most obfuscating verbiage you can. And let us not forget Mark Twain's dictum: The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. If you truly know that the best word for the job is one you need a thesaurus for, then perhaps it's okay to do so, just that once. But in general, we ought to curb our sesquipedalian natures, eschew obfuscation, and strive for clarity.

Comments

I was thinking recently about Shakespeare's much-heralded word-inventiveness, and realized that he and Marlowe and their contemporaries were writing before dictionaries and thesauri. Didn't have them for use in their own writing, not available when they were reading or for their audience.

Don't know a word? Can't look it up. Ask somebody or make it up... what else are you going to do?

Dictionaries are such commonplace tools, that really made them feel alien...
Speaking primarily as a reader:

I can see a use for a thesaurus to pin down the word that's on the tip of your tongue. And while a word that I don't recognise might break the flow of an action sequence, it might be just the decoration you need for the description of something rich, exotic, or just technical.

Using a word that feels unnatural to you as a writer will almost certainly turn in prose that feels unnatural - but using the words that come most naturally risks generating clichés. Plain style doesn't necessarily mean easy writing. When I write something - even this! - I think quite hard about which words will express most clearly what I want to say. Often, this involves seeing how much I can leave out.

I think what I'm saying is, don't let the thesaurus drive your writing; don't use the fancy words just because they're there. But if you find it useful as a tool, that's got to be OK, too.
I agree that you shouldn't use the thesaurus to trump up your language. I'm a big fan of plain language and of writing with the vocabulary you have, not the one you think will impress readers.

I'd say another exception to this rule is using a thesaurus to help you remember a word on the tip of your tongue. Not in search of a more showy word, but to jar your memory for an apt word that momentarily eludes you.
"This crazy galaxy is the price that the universe pays for order. 666, eh? By the seven green moons, it was well numbered! There's something strangely capricious about this place. Just as our universe is a motivated universe, this one is motiveless. The real universe, the universe to which we belong, has purpose; this one is whimsical, fanciful and fantastic. This is a temperamental galaxy, an hysterical galaxy, a mad galaxy. This is an insane, freakish, wanton, erratic, inconsistent galaxy; it's a completely unreasonable galaxy. It's undisciplined, refractory, uncertain and unpredictable. It's a volatile galaxy, a mercurial galaxy. [...] It's a frivolous galaxy; it's inconsistent and inconstant; it's variable; it's unstable; it's irresponsible and unreliable." —Pel Torro, Galaxy 666
This passage reminds me of the pulp fiction of Lionel Fanthorpe Here's a passage from March of the Robots, so you'll see what I mean.

(Anonymous)

I gotta disagree with this one. I think it's ridiculous to sit there with a thesaurus trying to make every sentence sound self-important, but I don't know any authors who do that. I had to use a thesaurus just two days ago, though, because I knew there was a word that meant "heavy with pregnancy" and I couldn't for the life of me remember it. Burgeoning. And it was exactly the word I needed.
Could you identify yourself, please? You make a good point, but I don't know who you are.
Gee, I'd pick "gravid."
Me too.
Do you have to use a thesaurus to be a good stylist, though?

Quick to enter my mind at the thought are Patricia McKillip and Steven Brust -- neither of whom are really thesaurus writers, AFAICT.
I think most people tend to equate stylistic prose with elegant word choice.
There are times when I want a specific nuance of meaning and can't quite find the right word--that's when I use a Thesaurus. I've also learned to use one as a quick spell-checker, though there's less need for that nowadays.

For example, gravid vs. burgeoning: one implies weight, the other, growth. English is a language with many synonyms, but each has its shades of meaning. Though they're next to eachother in my Thesaurus, there's a difference between 'dispute' and 'deny.' The former implies an open argument, whereas the latter implies a statement.
This is exactly how I use my Thesauri and I like plain speech.

English is a language with many synonyms, but each has its shades of meaning.

true - but can you rely on your readers to correctly distinguish the shade you mean? when you pick and choose your words so carefully, you’re gambling; the reader who does know what “gravid” means without having to stop and think (or consult a reference book) will get a little frisson of pleasure at your deft use of language, but the reader who doesn’t will either be baffled and disrupted (not so good) or gloss over the word and infer it from context (not so bad).

too many inferences from context and you run the risk of losing the second reader.

-steve

My style tends towards the plain, the ordinary, the unornamented -- and that is the only way I know how to write.

As a reader, this is what I prefer. I like prose that's accessible, not pretentious. I want to read a story, not a symbolist poem.

As for thesauruses, I use Dictionary.com all the time. I can't say whether it's helped or hurt my writing, really. Still, I have a really limited vocabulary for an aspiring writer, and I think it would distract a reader to keep seeing my "favorite words" over and over again.
Re your P.S. I don't have a print collection, sadly, but much of my backlist is available in electronic format at Fictionwise.

And I do have stories in a variety of anthologies, some of which are still in print. You can find out which ones in my bibliography.
Though I'm not a writer, at times I'll be writing documentation and realize that I've used a word too often. That's when I'll hit the thesaurus, to help me reword things so that I'm being less repetitive. (Of course, if the word is a term of art, I won't rephrase it; precision has to beat prose style in most of these situations.)
And as an English instructor, I completely agree. I've seen so many disasters due to students using thesauruses (thesauri?) and not understanding the subtleties and connotations of the words they are substituting.
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