November 16th, 2005


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.

Who Mourns for SCI FICTION?

When I posted a few days ago about the loss of SCI FICTION and the state of the short fiction market, I left out a few thoughts that I felt were more controversial. The reason I did so is that I don't want to be one of those doom-sayers who keep predicting the death of science fiction. As Gardner Dozois tends to note in his annual Year's Best collections, every year people predict the death of science fiction, and every year it trudges along.

But there is one thought that I've now decided to share. With all the Internet discussion lamenting the end of SCI FICTION, it occurred to me that I haven't seen one post from anyone who isn't either a writer, aspiring writer, or an editor.

In other words, I haven't seen a single reader or fan -- defined as someone who simply reads science fiction, and has no desire to write it -- post about how upset they are over the loss of the webzine. I'm also on a few fannish email lists, and I haven't seen any expressions of concern there either.

Am I wrong? Are there any laments about the end of SCI FICTION coming from people who self-identify solely as readers, or fans, who aren't either professional writers or aspiring writers or editors? Is there anyone out there bemoaning its loss simply for the stories, and not also for the fact that they've just lost a lucrative market for their fiction?

If not, that's a chilling thought to consider. Because it would imply that the only people who really care about short science fiction are those who harbor thoughts of make a living from writing. And there's not enough of those to be the audience.