the thesaurus: use, don’t abuse

maybe this is weird, but as a little kid, i really, really wanted to read the whole dictionary. as in pick up the thing and read it from front to back, just as if it were a novel. not only would i learn soooo much, i’d carry it around with me and look smart doing it, too. and i’d never be stumped by one of those cross word puzzles ever again (do  these even exist anymore?).

okay, so it didn’t last long. i got a handful of pages into the As and was bored out of my freaking mind. i even tried flipping to random letters–Q! there’s gotta be some interesting Q words!–only to face the fact that randomness does not necessarily equal fun. not only that, the sucker was waaaay too heavy to lug around on a daily basis, and at the rate i was going, conquering every single cross word puzzle in the world just wasn’t going to happen.

my point is, it’s all about context. reading a new word cold simply because it’s the next one on the page probably won’t stick. but if i come across one in the middle of a book i’m already invested in and have to look it up, then it connects, clicks, means something.

now when it comes to writing, it’s the dictionary’s more seductive half that’ll trip you up every time–the thesaurus. it’s full of pretty, fancy words, but they won’t be your words; they’ll be out of context with your voice, your writing style, and primarily used out of desperation. i’ve never abused the thesaurus too much, but on the occasions that i have, it just doesn’t seem to work out. during revisions and edits, it’s these words that stick out and don’t ring true, and i’ll end up replacing them nine times out of ten.

so if you’re really stuck for a word, when your mind seizes up on you and you’re drawing a serious blank and the caffeine just can’t hit quick enough, leave it. take a break and come back to it with fresh eyes. almost always something will have hit, and it’ll be the right word. maybe not the perfect word (perfection can still come later; it’s why edits always last more than one round), but chances are it’ll sit better than any one you could have plucked from the thesaurus. not to say it’s not good to know a good thesaurus site, but be selective, be brave–the best words are already in your head.

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8 thoughts on “the thesaurus: use, don’t abuse

  1. Adrienne says:

    You made it a lot farther through the dictionary than I did!

  2. Adrienne, maybe we should have start a book club comprised of dictionary sections? We could go backwards to make it interesting?

  3. I totally tried reading the dictionary, too. I can’t remember how far I got–probably Aardvark. I have, however, read a book about someone reading the encyclopedia (The Know-It-All). Does this count?

    And yes, I love my thesaurus. Sometimes it whispers dirty things in my ear and makes me put words like “reticent” and “guttersnipe” in my YA manuscripts–but I never stay angry at it for long.

  4. *looks up guttersnipe* *vows to use in next wip*

    April, meta reading about the dictionary totally counts. (And I think it’s a given to heavily abuse the thesaurus for FITAIS.)

  5. Electral love, Oedipal love, interbreeding…in space.

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