Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Wrong Word

Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.
-- Stephen King


I've always liked this quote from Stephen King. I'm not a pretentious person in any aspect of my life. This quote kind of symbolizes how I live: simple, to the point, straight-forward. I write the same way.

But...

Aren't there exceptions to every rule? In my writing, I rarely use a thesaurus. Really, really rarely. But I still use it upon occasion.

I have some problems with the thesaurus. When I reach for it, it's because I'm trying to find another way to say a word I've been using. Okay, overusing. In that situation, the thesaurus is the lazy way out. I usually find I'm better off rewriting the scene so that I use the word less often. After all, if I've repeated it so often I need to find a substitute word, I'm pretty sure the reader will be fed up of the word as well.

With this ms, I've been using the thesaurus more often. I'm writing in a new genre, Steampunk, where I get to make stuff up. Loving it! But naming these new devices is sometimes problematic. Cue the handy-dandy thesaurus. I've found it helps springboard my brain into creating more options so the name of the new device gives a hint to its purpose without sounding common.

Do you often use a thesaurus? How does it help you out with your writing?

36 comments:

  1. Over-use of words is a common problem with many writers. I'm sure I'm no exception, though I do try to 'scour' the redundancies on edit. Yes, I sometimes use a thesaurus, but not to find a magically unique way to hide over-use of a word. I use it only because on occasion I will be speeding along merrily with a character and plot I love when suddenly, without warning, I'll draw a complete and utter blank. Don't know if this happens to anyone else -- a word you know very well, not an obscure or pretentious one, just a plain old everday word. Can I come up with it? Not for a second.

    In that case, out comes my handy-dandy thesaurus. There may be many words that mean ALMOST the same thing, but they are not the ones I want. I want the precise, exact word that fits what I'm trying to say.

    Thank you, Thesaurus, for saving me from yet one more brick wall...

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  2. Donna - Yes! That most definitely happens to me. I tend to drive the people around me crazy with, "What's that word..."

    They probably wish I'd use the thesaurus more :)

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  3. I use the thesaurus frequently... I know we're not supposed to and I know this is horrible to admit as a writer. But I have a horrible vocab memory. I don't know if I'm partially dyslexic or what, but I confuse word definitions all the time. So I use the thesaurus the way I'd use a dictionary - to see if the word I'm using is being used correctly. (And believe me, I don't use many big words - I'm talking small words here too.) Sigh.

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  4. Sara - I really don't think there's anything wrong with using a thesaurus - it's just a tool!!

    I have many days where my brain freezes, and I can't think of the words at all, so I know how you feel!

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  5. I can see where King was going with his thought, but I do use a thesaurus frequently. That's mostly because a word will be on the tip of my tongue and I can't remember it. I'll think of the word's definition and look up one of *those* words, then I get the one I was looking for.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  6. Elizabeth - yes - that's a very valid use of the thesaurus. When I'm writing quickly, it drive me nuts when I can't think of the precise word I want :)

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  7. Hi Jemi

    I went into meltdown when my copy of Word 2007 was loaded incorrectly and it would neither spellcheck nor thesaur-ise for me.

    I will re-write if I think I'm over-using a word. Sometimes, I find that a certain word is the only one that will work in the key sentence but the thesaurus offers a word that will do elsewhere.

    I enjoyed reading the Twilight series - I enjoyed hearing the writer's voice becoming something else when the editor showed up. It's worth the read just for that moment. Skim through the middle of Book 4 and all will be well!
    The Host on the other hand I read on a loop for weeks - loved it!

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  8. I use the thesaurus, but not too often. It's usually when I know there's another word I want to use, but it just won't reach the front of my brain. The thesaurus is a good prompt at that point.

    So yes it occasionally helps my writing. Though I haven't tried steampunk yet. I bet the OED would be a great word-generator...

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  9. Elaine - It's funny how we get so used to our tools :) I like your idea of rewriting around those key sentences - so true.

    I will have to give the Twilight series a shot one of these days!

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  10. Simon - good thought - I'll have to give that a look :)

    It's funny how we all have those words tickling our brains, but we just can't quite reach them.

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  11. I use one because I have a poor memory and can usually come up with a word that is sort of like what I'm thinking of, and I can almost always find it this way. For example, just yesterday I was thinking, "what's that word for the way a dancer might come into the room," but I couldn't pinpoint it, so I looked up walk, and voila! prance

    I think in writing, there are very few unbreakable rules. Once again, another great post, Jemi!

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  12. Carol - good example of a good use of a thesaurus! I've never been very good at following rules blindly. Thanks!! :)

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  13. Must admit I use the thesaurus quite a lot. Gives me the kick I need when inspiration is waning. Well, that's my excuse anyway...

    Good post Jemi :)

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  14. Quill - It seems a lot of writers use the thesaurus - for a variety of reasons. But I think we're using it as a tool, not a crutch. Big difference.

    Thanks :)

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  15. I keep a thesaurus next to me. Wouldn't write without one, but I don't use it much. Like Elizabeth, when I do, I'm usually in search of a word that's right on the tip of my tongue and I can't quite get there. The thesaurus helps me work my way down to it so I don't go crazy. :)

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  16. VR - I'm for anything that speeds us along. I hate getting bogged down. If that thesaurus is going to speed up my thinking, I'm all for it :)

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  17. I do use a thesaurus regularly. Often it is to avoid using one word too often, but a lot of times it's to help me with my malfunctioning and forgetful brain. Similar to Carolina, there are times when the right word in right there out of reach and all the other similar words that I can think of are just not right. I use thesaurus.com and it has gotten me out of a bind on more than one occasion. I just plug in the "similar" word, and the word that's been eluding me is right there. Happened just last night... could only think of "bombarded", and since it's steampunk-ish, it didn't quite fit. The word that had escaped me-- onslaught. : )

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  18. I use a thesaurus because I've found there's nothing more irritating than writing away and then writing a word you know is *wrong*. Looking it up in a thesaurus quickly lets me discover the *right* word and then I can keep going. However, if I can't find the right word, I'll just make a mark in the manuscript and find it later. If I'm writing, I'm not going to break my rhythm by searching for 10 minutes.

    Bless thesauruses! Maybe Mr. King doesn't need them, but I sure do.

    Elspeth

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  19. Calista - I like onslaught :) Is this for the new ms? It's going to be awesome!

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  20. Elspeth - I wonder if King meant just searching for those "big" or "pretentious" words. I think we all have those brain tickles - just can't grab onto that perfect word.

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  21. It is for the new ms. : ) I think it'll be a lot of fun once I figure it out where it's going. lol.

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  22. I love Stephen King's "On Writing" almost more than life itself, but I also LOVE me my thesaurus. And my dictionary. They're always by my side when I write. I don't use them often, but I use them well. I mean good, I mean a lot. I mean... ;-)

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  23. Cali - that's always the trick - but it's also part of the fun! I love when it twists on me :)

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  24. Debra - love it! It seems that no writers - at least none visiting this blog :) - can go thesaurus-free! And so many of us use his "On Writing", don't we! Awesome book.

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  25. Yes I used the thesaurus after I put my book into Wordle and suddenly, wondering and looked came up as the biggest words. Suddenly was huge, obviously thing happen instantly, abruptly and without warning a lot in my book ;)

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  26. Alexa - I love using Wordle for over used words. One of the words I need to eliminate all the time is "just". Even though I'm aware of it, it pops in whenever my attention slips :)

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  27. I sometimes keep going to different definitions on the thesaurus while I'm thinking how to write a scene.

    How weird is that?

    I think it's a little like looking out the window before a painter begins painting. (Or maybe I'm just hoping that because it makes it sound so much more normal...)

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  28. I love making up words--or new definitions for old words. I like that too!

    I disagree with King. Sometimes a writer knows the word and can feel it at their fingertips. But the word is dancing around, synonyms leaping out at the writer, distracting them from their friend--the right word. The only thing that can save the writer is a thesaurus. Or a high-octane sedative. Maybe he opts for sedatives. Who knows?

    I prefer a thesaurus.

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  29. Great quote.
    Sometimes I use a thesaurus if I find I use the same word over and over. It helps give me an idea of how to change up it.

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  30. Stephen King is not mortal. I use a thesaurus.

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  31. Anne - Sounds like brainstorming - Great idea :) And, yes, it does sound very normal!!

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  32. Jean - LOL!! That's the exact feeling of when I just can't tackle the right word :)

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  33. Elizabeth - LOL!! That's a good one :) And you never know...

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  34. King has written so much that he has a thesaurus built into his brain. I keep a thesaurus and a dictionary right next to me and refer to them often. It not so much that I'm looking for unique or obscure words, but I'm looking for the right word or correct usage and sometimes even the correct spelling. I agree with what a lot of previous posters have already said.
    Lee

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  35. arlee - so true!! It seems the vast majority of writers visiting this site aren't like King. Long live the thesaurus :)

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