Friday, March 23, 2012

The right word to write

I read a mostly anti-thesaurus blog post this morning that included this little 1986 screed from Stephen King:
You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.
 I understand what King meant. Something along the lines of, “write out of your own experience and use your own voice.” Standard advice provocatively stated. But he was young in 1986. I wonder if he still feels there is “no exception” to this rule. There is at my desk. I use the thesaurus (online, of course) often these days, not because I’m looking for an impressive fancy word to replace a common everyday one, but because I can’t remember the word I know I need to use. In other words, I know I know the word. But my old brain can’t trigger the synapse to find the right drawer and pull it out. If it weren’t for a quick way to refresh my memory, I would have stopped trying to write years ago, because the right word—exactly the right word—is a great joy of writing and a key to the whole deal for me.

The trick with the thesaurus is to find a word to search on that’s close enough to the one you know you want ... not always as easy as it sounds, since you may be working off a vague definition rather than a synonym. Unfortunately, these days, the big Yes! of turning up exactly the word I’ve been blindly reaching for is too often a highlight of the working day.


I also admit I used a dictionary yesterday—to make sure I understood the difference between “bagatelle” and “lagniappe.” (In half a nutshell, a lagniappe can be—usually is—a bagatelle, but the reverse is not true. For the other half, look ’em up yourself.) This had nothing to do with any writing, though. Pure euphonious fun.


Robin said...

I often check spellings and meanings of words in a dictionary to avoid the embarrassment of not getting it quite right. A thesaurus is especially useful to avoid needless repetition. Each to his own, I suppose.

Mark Alvarez said...

Right, Robin. I bet you don't write horror stories, either!

Alan Sloman said...

Robin used to report on some horror stories, I am sure, in his previous life!

Ligni what?

I shal have to look that one up.

Mark Alvarez said...

Cheers, Alan. Sounds like you're ready to roll in May. Wish I could be there.