The Dangers of the Thesaurus

28 Oct

By Sammy Bina

~~~

As writers, we have loads of tools available to us. From traditional encyclopedias and dictionaries, to sites like Wikipedia and the Chicago Manual of Style, any information you could possibly want (and then some) can be found somewhere nearby. Some of us like it old-school and on paper, and others like a keyboard and a computer screen. But no matter what your preference, I think we can all agree that these resources are indispensable.

However, I’ve found that there’s one tool writers need to be careful when using, and that is our trusty consultant, the thesaurus. It’s great for those times when you’re stuck and can’t think of an appropriate word, or when you need a different way to describe the color of someone’s eyes. The trick is making it seem like you didn’t actually reference your thesaurus a million times.

I think, in this instance, an example would be best. We’ll use a paragraph from my current WIP to demonstrate:

Original:
The picture was taken in July of 2002 – the summer you moved in next door. I remember how excited I was when Mom told me there was a kid my age moving into the old brick house, the one Mr. Bukowski died in. Heart attack, they said. There hadn’t been kids in our neighborhood for years, and I thought you’d be a boy who’d want to watch spy movies with me, or play sports, or help me dig a hole to China. Turns out you were a girl, but at least you didn’t mind playing in the dirt all day. Since you had an older brother, you didn’t mind watching football with me, even though you liked soccer better. You even offered to be goalie. It was love at first sight.

Thesaurusized (Yup! Made that one up!):
The portrait was developed in July of 2002 – the summer you moved in next door. I recall how energized I was when Mom informed me there was an adolescent my age moving into the aged brick dwelling, the one Mr. Bukowski expired in. Heart attack, they said. There hadn’t been adolescents in our locality for decades, and I considered you’d be a lad who’d want to view espionage motion pictures with me, or play sports education, or help me excavate a fissure to China. Turns out you were a lass, but at least you didn’t mind playing in the muck all day. Since you had a grown-up brother, you didn’t mind surveying football with me, even though you were keen on soccer instead. You even offered to be goalie. It was adoration at first sight.

Obviously the second paragraph sounds ridiculous. But why? Probably because every word I could replace with something from the thesaurus, I did. Some of the choices don’t even make sense. The pacing is clunky and awkward, and you might have to stop and think once or twice about what’s actually being said. The whole thing is, essentially, a mess. Whereas the meanings in the original paragraph are clear, those in the thesaurusized version are confusing and really pull the reader from the story.

That’s the risk you run when over-using a thesaurus (or any resource, really). I’ve seen quite a number of submissions where it’s obvious that the author couldn’t think of a better word, and arbitrarily picked something out of the thesaurus. It seems awkwardly placed, and I was forced to stop reading to consider why the author had chosen that word in the first place. The original meaning is lost, and in some cases, something entirely different is being said.

My advice? Read the sentence out loud. Like with dialogue, if you can read it out loud and it sounds fine, then you’re probably doing okay. But if you can read a sentence where you substituted a word from the thesaurus and it sounds awkward, then it most likely is. This method generally works for me, but in cases where I’m still not sure, I just ask whoever’s close by (try not to ask strangers, though. They might look at you funny!). Trust me, friends aren’t afraid to tell you if a sentence sounds strange.

So the next time you get stuck trying to find another way to describe chiseled abs, know that there’s a resource out there just waiting to help you! Just don’t let it get the best of you. Spicing up your language is great! Killing language is not.

~~~

Sammy Bina is a fifth year college senior with a BA in Creative Writing. She is currently querying THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD, an adult dystopian romance, and working on OBSESSION, a contemporary YA. She is an intern with the Elaine P. English Literary Agency, and can be found on twitter, or at her blog.

Advertisements

43 Responses to “The Dangers of the Thesaurus”

  1. Kim October 28, 2010 at 12:05 AM #

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 12:09 AM #

      WIN.

      • priscillashay October 28, 2010 at 11:25 PM #

        ahhh :/ instead of doing hw i watched Friends bloopers *blame*

        • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 11:28 PM #

          At least it was a worthwhile way to procrastinate.

  2. Kat Zhang October 28, 2010 at 12:06 AM #

    Ok, time for incredibly embarrassing Kat Story. So back in the day when I was eleven and dumb and writing my first story, I wrote a scene where someone gives a girl a bun, like a bread kinda bun. Well, the scene was kinda long and I was sick of saying “bun” all the time, so I used the handy-dandy “thesaurus” option on Microsoft Word. What should pop up but “chignon”?

    …so yeah. I wrote a scene where a girl eats a chignon.

    FAIL.

    😛

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 12:09 AM #

      KAT. That is the best story EVER. It’s almost like that time where I ate dog food as a kid…

    • Sarah J. Maas October 28, 2010 at 12:34 AM #

      LMAOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Hahahahahaha omg. I love you.

      • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 12:36 AM #

        I was at a friend’s house. There were two bowls on the table. One was dog food and one as cocoa puffs. I apparently can’t tell the difference between people and non-people food.

        I feel like buns and hair could be hard to differentiate as well.

        • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 12:37 AM #

          one WAS cocoa puffs. I can tyle.

          • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 12:37 AM #

            TYPE. I CAN TYPE.

        • Sarah J. Maas October 28, 2010 at 12:45 AM #

          LOL!!!!!!!!!!! PLEASE tell me this is a true story.

          • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 12:47 AM #

            Of course it is. I was a really stupid kid.

        • Kat Zhang October 28, 2010 at 12:47 AM #

          Lol, I did that once, but with apple juice and beer.

          • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 12:57 AM #

            High-five for that one.

          • Meagan Spooner October 28, 2010 at 3:23 AM #

            I did that once with ginger ale vs. beer! I maintain this is why I hate the taste of beer to this day. I’m so glad I’m not alone!

    • Biljana October 28, 2010 at 12:37 AM #

      LOL that’s AMAZING.

    • Kat Zhang October 28, 2010 at 12:47 AM #

      Haha, yeah…let’s not even get into the bad writing stories I have.

  3. Meagan Spooner October 28, 2010 at 12:37 AM #

    OMG, I was about to link to that exact scene from Friends! Everything I need to know I learned from Must See TV…

    But yeah, great post. I think a lot of writers developed their vocabulary from reading, and therefore sometimes don’t fully understand the nuances of words they’re otherwise quite familiar with. A lot of times you’ll see a word that’s -close- but not quite right, and the result can be really affecting. It’s like that quote from Mark Twain, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 12:42 AM #

      Totally agree. I was still messing up lightening and lightning until about a year ago. Just goes to show how weird the English language can be, and how you need to be SO careful of word usage!

  4. Biljana October 28, 2010 at 12:38 AM #

    Sammy this is hilarious :D. Great article. “I recall how energized I was when Mom informed me there was an adolescent my age moving into the aged brick dwelling, the one Mr. Bukowski expired in.” LOVE IT.

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 12:41 AM #

      Clearly I need to start writing my articles when I’m sleep deprived :-p

      Thanks, Billy!

  5. Sarah J. Maas October 28, 2010 at 12:44 AM #

    AMAZING post, Sammy! I’ve definitely seen people use ‘big’ words in their mss, and it just comes across as so…pretentious. Like, this one time, I honestly LOLed when I saw a fancy word(s) in this ms because it was so contrived. I think the person was trying to come across as clever, but they just seemed…ridiculous, lol.

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 12:58 AM #

      Thanks, Sarah!

      Yeah, I was kind of surprised by the number of submissions I saw that did that. Who knew?

  6. Susan October 28, 2010 at 7:17 AM #

    Awesome post. (BTW, I love that first paragraph. It made me want to keep reading…)

    I use a thesaurus, but my rule of thumb is:

    Sooz, you can only use the thesaurus to jog your aging memory. You can’t select a word from it that you would never *actually* say.

    So let’s say I’m trying to find the perfect synonym for “cold”, I wouldn’t pick an off-the-wall word (a là Siberian). Instead, I’d choose something actually in my vocabulary. The thesaurus is just there to get the juices flowin’, ya know?

    Frosty… I think I’d say frosty ‘cos that makes me think of Wendy’s. 😉

    P.S. I can’t believe you ate dog food. It really looks nothing like cocoa puffs. How much did you eat before you figured it out?

    • savannahjfoley October 28, 2010 at 9:17 AM #

      I agree with Susan; the first paragraph made me want to read more!!!

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 11:30 AM #

      Thanks, Susan!

      And I think that is the best rule of thumb ever. Everyone reading the comments, take note! THIS is how you use a thesaurus. I think that’s what I was trying to say, but sleep deprivation wouldn’t allow it :-p

      …And it took me half the bowl before I figured it out. Like I said, I was a really stupid child.

  7. Marc Vun Kannon October 28, 2010 at 8:49 AM #

    I have used a thesaurus on occasion, but only because I knew that there was an alternative word to the one I wanted, but I couldn’t remember it. Lots of times I didn’t like any of the words the book had, so I changed the sentence to use different ones. It’s not the case, though, that thesauri are only good for replacing short words with long ones. English in particular has acquired words from all over, and some are smooth polished multisyllabic things and some are short and guttural. The real test is what fits the flow or the voice of the story. Your example seemed to be a young boy, so the short words fit. If the character was a pretentious snob lamenting his bad choices perhaps the longer words would have conveyed that better.

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 11:31 PM #

      An excellent point, Marc. One really needs to consider the narrator’s voice when consulting a thesaurus because, as you said, complex words wouldn’t make sense for a smaller child (which you also got right!). Or vice versa. That’s why writers need to be SO, so careful when replacing words.

  8. Rowenna October 28, 2010 at 9:13 AM #

    I have to admit, I love the thesaurus–my rules for not using while writing exist mainly because I’d get too distracted by it! I’m with Susan–I occasionally know exactly what I’m trying to say, and the thesaurus helps with “tip the tongue” syndrome–when I can’t quite place the word I want to use. You know, that one? It starts with a o, I swear. It means something like stubborn. Sigh…

    But agreed, Sammy–pulling random words does not make you sound smart nor does it make your story work any better. I think the only use for some of those words is the verbal section of the GRE. 🙂

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 11:32 PM #

      “Tip of the tongue” syndrome. I love that! Totally stealing that phrase.

      And I totally suffer from it. Constantly.

  9. savannahjfoley October 28, 2010 at 9:18 AM #

    I have a Mac, so I have the thesaurus app on my dashboard. It’s very useful when I have to name things, but I rarely use when writing writing.

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 11:33 PM #

      I should do that, too. But instead, I downloaded Chinese checkers and have been trying to beat the computer for days.

      I need a better word for beat…

      Destroy? Annihilate?

  10. Vanessa Di Gregorio October 28, 2010 at 9:59 AM #

    AHAHAHAHAHA Sammy! LOVED this post! (Can I just say how much I love the Thesaurus dinosaur at the end there? Total WIN).

    I know I’ve read some manuscripts where I just went, “WHAT?! Seriously? That’s the word you decided to choose?” – so I totally get what you’re saying!

    P.S. Your hair in that pic is insanely AWESOME!

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 11:35 PM #

      Me too! I put the dinosaur on my tumblr as well, because I thought it was so clever.

      And I think every intern who’s ever read slush knows exactly what I’m talking about. It’s like an epidemic or something, because every intern I’ve talked to has dealt with the same thing.

      Also, muchos gracias! I was at a wedding on Friday, so I had to get all dressed up. I wish I were Farrah Fawcett.

  11. tymcon October 28, 2010 at 10:06 AM #

    Huh. Strangely enough i’ve never used a thesarus before. Although, I’ve nover got to the editing stage, so that’s probably the reason.

    Very funny article.

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 11:36 PM #

      Hey, if you can avoid using it, more power to you! I’d say that’s pretty impressive. Stay strong, my friend!

  12. Julie Eshbaugh October 28, 2010 at 11:32 AM #

    Such a great post, Sammy! I must admit, I DO use a thesaurus, but like Susan, only to help me remember that word I can’t… remember! Also, that new userpic of you is so great. You are SO PRETTY!!!

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 11:40 PM #

      Thanks, Julie! I admit, I consult my handy thesaurus on occasion but, as you said, only when I can’t remember a word. That seems like the best rule of thumb.

      And — double thanks! I had to dress up for a wedding last week and decided to go pin-up style!

      • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 11:40 PM #

        It would make more sense if you could see the dress, haha.

  13. Angela Francis October 28, 2010 at 11:40 AM #

    I LOVE this. Very true. I learned it the hard way. I wish someone told me about this when I first started writing. And I LOVE the clip from Friends. so funny. Great blog!!

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 11:41 PM #

      Thanks, Angela! I have to admit, I was probably a thesaurus freak when I was a kid, so don’t feel bad! We’ve all done it.

  14. Draven Ames October 28, 2010 at 2:12 PM #

    When writing, too many people fall into the habit of using the thesaurus a lot. To avoid that, whenever I read or watch movies with my kids, I write down any ‘often-used’ words that I may have passed up. When I am writing, it makes for a handy tool.

    Great article. I hope slush piles aren’t filled with thesaurus writers.

    Draven Ames

    • Sammy Bina October 28, 2010 at 11:41 PM #

      That’s a great idea, Draven!

      And I wouldn’t say the slush pile is filled with them, but there are definitely more than you might think.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: