Don’t be like that.
Yeah, as tough as the truth may seem, you have to communicate to your readers in words. Movie producers have it easy: they don’t have to worry about some measly distinction between elevate and exasperate or heighten and anger. They have a little camera and they tell the actor to make a certain face, and no words are needed whatsoever.
And even tougher on the writers, having to communicate through words can be even worse when you choose the wrong words. Picking lame synonyms will ruin a good story. If it’s “too weak”, “kinda meh” or “too strong”, then you leave your reader in a confused haze. Picking the right word requires tact, thought, and the occasional thesaurus.
That’s right, a thesaurus. The name strikes fear into the hearts of many a young writer, and images of a large red yellow-paged book comes to mind. I’ve heard complaints of “Aww, a thesaurus! But those are so much work!” I know, and they can be. The amount of information in a thesaurus is OFTEN overwhelming. The careful navigation of one takes careful handling too.
However, I propose an alternative solution: an electric dictionary. Don’t use the web if you want to save time: usually there’s a thesaurus feature in many word processing programs. On a mac, all you need to do is left-click a highlighted word and click “define”. Get some synonyms in there. Don’t be afraid to use a better-fitting word than the one you’ve previously selected.
The concept of a fitly-spoken word has literally existed for all of time. From the Proverbs: “Fitly spoken words are like apples of gold in pictures of silver…”. Note that “fitly spoken” doesn’t mean “more forceful”. It just means better for the situation. It takes GREAT powers of discretion to pick the right word.
Consider this scenario: I’m trying to describe a good-looking specimen of a female. (Don’t squirm, everyone has to do it sometime or another) Suppose this specimen is a schoolgirl, being seen through a schoolboy’s eyes. Now, I wouldn’t say: “She was so beautiful, she took my breath away. Eyes the color of a cool winter’s eve, high cheekbones, and a figure that steals the heart of even the most staunch puritan.” because that would be ridiculous.
This is a fine description, but with poorly chosen words for the occasion. The situation, for one, renders this description obsolete. It’s a school, for crying out loud. They’re children (or barely not), so I don’t expect this boy to literally wax poetic about his crush. Instead, I would use very different language: “She was really pretty. She looked kinda like a model, like what’s-her-name on that TV show…But maybe that’s because I’m partial to brunettes. Anyway, I saw her walk across the cafeteria at noon…” blah blah blah. More like that.
Notice how the second description uses words like “pretty” in lieu of beautiful. Also, a good deal of that description is NOT about her. Teens are naturally pretty selfish (Don’t deny it, you were one once or else you still are) and tend to talk about themselves. Description A would do better in a romance novel, or a fantasy novel where the hero glimpses a look of his future bride. Both are good descriptions, but out of place. Be aware of the circumstances in the story. “Burly” is not quite the word you’re looking for when you’re describing a gang of thugs during a famine.
Secondly, beside out-of-place words, weak words also need to be done away with. You’ve probably got that feeling when you’re trying to get your point across on a certain action, topic or description, and you were missing just one word. You don’t know what it is, but you know that it would give your writing just that much more punch. So you decide on “big”. What? If you write your entire description trying to get your reader to envision the word “big” in their head then I guarantee you that it will be junk.
Why? Because the concept of “big” is too simple. If I say, “The big cat” I have told you next to nothing about the cat. There are a billion different ways in which “big” could play out. What about “The monstrous cat”? Now we’re talking! Big, but like a monster. A more defined definition. What about “The colossal cat”? Like “big”, but better. “The vast cat”? Even better! The reader is now wondering: “Is it vast as in big and fat, or strong and muscular, or just big?” The better your word gets, the better the understanding of your reader.
This is where the thesaurus will help you. By looking at “big”, you can glimpse scores of other words that reflect that word. The variations of “big” out there are myriad. Don’t miss out on that action.
Now, here’s where you want to be careful. Never let it be said that the bigger, more forceful word is necessarily the better word. If you want to describe something small, think of all of it’s aspects. It’s small and…what? Don’t JUST say “infinitesimal” or “unbearably tiny”, say something that has ANOTHER connotation, like “dwarfish”.
So make use of your thesaurus. use it well, and often. One final tip: reading always improved writing. If one of your favorite authors likes this word, look it up and learn what it means. Add it to your vocabulary. Be ready to use it at the right time…and in the right way.
Good luck, and happy writing!
2 thoughts on “Word Use and The Thesaurus”
Great post! Yeah the right words are very important for the right scene.
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Yeah, incredibly important! Sometimes the opinion of the right word depends on the writer’s opinion. Word choice requires an insane amount of judgement.