Monday Evening, 62°F and partly cloudy
Listening to Tame Impala—H.F.G.W. (Canyons Drunken Rage)
I’m begging you, dear amateur writer, put your thesaurus down and take several giant steps away from it. I’m not saying you should burn it (well, maybe, but let’s not be too hasty). For now, simply set it aside and take some time to consider how you’re using it, and why.
A thesaurus is a powerful tool when used properly. But abuse it and it will ruin your writing and out you as an insecure rube with a weak vocabulary and possibly an inferiority complex. Never attempt to use a thesaurus to make your writing more interesting or make yourself appear more intelligent and well read. It will do neither. A thesaurus can’t give you anything you don’t already have.
Here’s how abusing the thesaurus gets you in trouble: you begin with an idea that can be expressed accurately with ordinary words. But, overcome by the desire to impress, you crack open the thesaurus or visit thesaurus.com. The search is on to gussy up your writing with fancier words and impress your readers and maybe your 7th grade English teacher (the one who gave you that list of 25 synonyms for said).
Thesaurus in hand, you can’t resist the temptation to choose words that are unusual, or at the very least new to you. Sadly, no one has clued you in that the synonyms listed in the thesaurus can have different connotations from the familiar word you’re trying to replace. Instead of a more precise word that improves communication, you deploy a word choice error that leaves your readers rolling their eyes or worse, laughing when you didn’t mean to amuse.
Check out this howler from the online profile of someone offering writing advice:
An amateur writer, aspiring to be bibliophagist, aesthete and trying to be guilty of epeolatry.*
Here’s what that thesaurus-fueled nightmare of a statement apparently means: “I’m an amateur writer who aspires to read more books. I love art and beauty, and I worship words.”
And here’s the unwritten and unintentional subtext: “I’m trying like hell to impress you with my big vocabulary, except I don’t actually understand these words. But whatever! I’m hoping you’re even dumber than I am and will be snowed by my blizzard of unusual terms that neither of us really understand and certainly don’t use in conversation. Epeolatry! Aesthete! And trying to be guilty of some junk! Look at me! Look at me! I Am Writing.”
(And what is with the unnecessarily fussy “trying to be guilty of”? While not a thesaurus issue, it’s an attempt at cleverness that just comes off as annoying.)
In any case, declaring one’s love for art, beauty and language is downright prosaic. Big deal. Who doesn’t love those things? It’s the literary equivalent of liking long walks on the beach, which brings me to my next point.
Interesting words don’t make interesting writing.
Interesting ideas do. So do interesting characters and interesting conflicts.
Mary walked to the drug store and bought aspirin for her headache is boring. It doesn’t get more interesting if we change it to Mary minced her way to the apothecary and availed herself of the opportunity to try to be guilty of making an acquisition of a concoction in pastille configuration which, with a calculate of triumph, would attenuate the cranial malaise that befell her. It’s still a boring idea, only now it’s three times as long, pointlessly complicated, and marred by questionable grammar. Is it in pastille configuration or in a pastille configuration? Who knows? Who cares?
The reader isn’t thinking “Wow, this writer is so clever.” She’s thinking “OMFG shut the hell up.” You want your readers to think about your ideas, or your story, not run for a dictionary trying to figure out what the deuce you’re blathering on about.
Here are some simple rules for judicious use of the thesaurus:
- Never choose a replacement word that isn’t already a regular part of your spoken vocabulary.
- Don’t use a 2-dollar word where a 10-cent word can do the same job.
- Think of the thesaurus as a clever friend who might remind you about a word you already know when you’re having trouble recalling it, but would also love to trick you into making an ass of yourself.
- Never assume that the listed synonyms have identical meanings, nuances, and connotations. They don’t. Really, they don’t. I know you wish they did, but they don’t.
- Never exchange a word you understand with one that you don’t.
- Never drill down into the thesaurus by looking up synonyms of synonyms of synonyms. Remember in #3 when I said the meanings aren’t identical? Well, the further down you drill into the thesaurus, the deeper into the vocabulary weeds you will drag your writing.
By all means, work on increasing your vocabulary. Just don’t count on a quick word exchange from the thesaurus to make your writing sound more intelligent. Chances are overwhelming that it will have the opposite effect. If you’re combing the thesaurus (or for that matter, the dictionary) for fancy new words to cram into your writing, please, take up golf or knitting or something else that no one will ever have to read.
Got it? Good.
*Yes, this example of Advanced Thesaurusitis is from an actual writer’s profile description. I wish I was making it up. I’m not identifying the writer because mine is to educate, not humiliate.
CC0 public domain image courtesy of Salmerf via Pixabay.