Sunday, August 8, 2010

On Words

I'm going to start this series on a heretical note.

A thesaurus is not a particularly useful tool.

Every word has an exact meaning, varying connotations, and a different rhythm. There is only one word that can fit in one place and be perfect, as you'll know if you occasionally are jarred when reading someone else's story by a word that just. isn't. right.

If you do not know what that word is that fits in the place in your piece in question, then the place needs to change, rather than squishing an inappropriate word into the writing. There are usually several that will fit and though any with the right dictionary meaning can be used, the connotation will shift, or the rhythm of the piece is thrown off, or worse, the tone is altered. Other than that one "right" word, or a very general word, nothing fits without being jarring. "We are going to the fair", "We are going to the carnival", and "We are going to the show", all mean completely different things, and sound different from one another, despite the change of just one word, and that change being to synonyms according to

Of course, sometimes you do need to change what words you are using. The rule of thumb I use is ten times five hundred words. Let's suppose my character were wandering around the fair grounds, and wondering about the changes at a fair since her youth. The word "fair" would be accurate in all instances. As a monosyllable, it would also be rhythmic. But hearing the word fair every ten or fifty words? It starts to grate on the reader's senses, which can lead them either to think that the word is very important, or that you aren't writing well.

Now I am fairly confident that all of you are going to be pedantic and say that I am being inconsistent, saying that you shouldn't repeat words, and that you shouldn't use a thesaurus. Where can one find words that fit, or how can one alter their writing to make inappropriate words match up?

As to finding new words, the answer is pretty much what you can expect- read. Read everything you can get your hands on, or just read a dictionary, or study word lists for your SATs. The more words you know in some part of your mind, the more words you have access to when you are writing. Using the thesaurus is learning words for your writing, rather than using words you've learned for your writing. A very fine distinction, but an important one. Writing should reflect, on some level, your history, your personality, your life, and by going outside of your realm of experience, you create a distance in your writing. This is something that should be used sparingly, and if an appreciable fraction of your vocabulary is drawn from things outside the realm of your experience, it will show, and will likely not look attractive. Even if you are experiencing the sensation of research, that adds to your life experience, but if you are just getting the sensation, the associations, of looking something up in a thesaurus? Not so much. Now if you were to read the thesaurus cover to cover, that would add to your experience, and would probably make the thesaurus obsolete for you. But that's pretty much the only value that such a document has to a writer with a strong voice.

Altering your writing is sometimes easier, and I find it is my preference in almost all situations. Continuing with the example of a fair that a character attends, one might wind up overusing the word "fair" if there is a lengthy description of how she reacts emotionally to all of the sights, and with memories of previous fairs with the antagonist. There are nonspecific words which can be used a few times- event is the only one that comes to mind, but in such a spiel, the fair itself might need to be referred to ten, twenty, thirty times. Perhaps instead of saying that she remembers going to the fair when she was young, she can say that she went to the 4H club's display. Or the fattening, maddening play on culture. Or any of a number longer, artsier phrases. Those also should be used sparingly, since the more artsy something gets the harder it is to take seriously.

Next post will be on sentence structures.

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