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Thoughts on Writing

#18: Thesaurus vs. Velociraptor

by Seanan McGuire


I realize that the title isn't entirely helpful, which is why we always have an expanded topic for discussion. (My personal shorthand for a lot of things is very, very strange. This is only one of those things.) Here's today's expanded, hopefully less-confusing topic:

Using big words doesn't make you a better writer, it makes you somebody who figured out how to use a thesaurus. Every word has a purpose and a meaning, but there's no reason to clutter up what you're trying to say with a bunch of words that will leave most readers diving for their dictionaries. That doesn't mean you need to dumb yourself down. It just means you need to really stop and ask yourself whether you want to use the word 'expectorate' when what you mean is 'spit.' Even Shakespeare used small words sometimes, and even the trashiest popular novelist in the world is allowed to use big ones. Suit your words to the task at hand.

That's right: this week we're going to be talking about word choices, what those word choices actually say about us as writers, and how to use the Thesaurus without inspiring people to beat you with it. The velociraptors are a metaphor for using the appropriate word in the appropriate situation. Also, I just really, really like velociraptors.

Ready? Excellent. Let's get started.

Let's talk about words.

We all start our lives with a vocabulary consisting entirely of random noises. We cry when we're hungry, or cold, or tired, or want something. We gurgle and chirp when we're happy. We shriek when we're upset. Eventually, we start to pick up words, much like flypaper will eventually start to pick up flies. The first words we learn are likely to be either the words we hear the most frequently, or the words our parents most hope we won't learn. (Sometimes, these words are the same thing. I doubt many parents have been particularly thrilled when their kids start shrieking 'no' at every opportunity. Given a choice between that and 'shit,' I think that most parents of two-year-olds would need to really sit down and think about it.)

Those first few words are a constant adventure in expanding vocabulary. If you really think about it, there's no other period in our lives where we increase our word power at such a geometric rate, and there's definitely no other period in our lives where people really go out of their way to teach us awesome new words. Small children encounter new words, request definitions, and incorporate them into their vocabularies like it was some sort of an Olympic sport, and many of the people who become writers were probably gold medalists in those early word-acquisition tourneys. When a little kid uses some huge and unexpected word, they're not viewed as showing off or being an intellectual elitist. They're viewed as 'precocious' and 'clever.'

Sadly, this changes somewhere around sixth grade, when vocabulary lessons are phased out in favor of electives like 'wood shop' (where I built the world's worst spice rack), 'home economics' (where I got excused from class after the third time I managed to set something on fire), and 'choir' (where I learned the soprano part of the choral version of 'The Theme from A Love Story'). 'Vocabulary' isn't an actual class anymore; it's just something that happens as a natural side-effect of not flunking English. Most people stop really hunting for new words. The words that they have are perfectly serviceable, and when no one's standing there saying 'yes, but you need to find the right words,' there isn't much of an urge to go hunting. People who love words become strange, if they weren't already. Vocabularies, so carefully constructed over the course of years, begin to simplify.

Is this always a bad thing? Well, no. There are some words which are very good at being clinical and specific, but really don't belong in casual conversation. I'm sure you can come up with three or four of them, just off the top of your head. (I was informed recently that being my friend results in the acquisition of a vocabulary many first-year virology students would envy. Just because most people don't wander around talking about droplet-based transmissions and viral amplification...) Sometimes, the words we hang onto really are the best.

Is this always a good thing? Also, no. I'm a writer in part because I love words. I'd be willing to bet that the same holds true for many of the people reading this. I adore the fact that there's a word that matches up with just about anything I could possibly want to say. Not everything needs to be that perfectly precise, but when the need exists, bam. The perfect word is ready to jump right in there.

Words are our friends. We should treat them that way. You wouldn't invite all your friends over at the same time, would you? Of course not. Your house isn't big enough, and some of them don't really get along. Also, if you invited absolutely everyone you'd ever met over at once, you know there would be drama.

Again, words are our friends. Be kind to them.

The fearsome and mighty THESAURUS.

At some point, all of us will discover the thesaurus. It just happens. If you hadn't discovered the thesaurus before reading this essay, well, congratulations: introductions have been made. The thesaurus is a big book that contains a lot of words. Not only that, it contains a lot of words and a lot of lists of other words that mean almost the same thing (ie, 'synonyms'. Take, for example, what you get when you plug 'blue' into a thesaurus:

"Azure, beryl, cerulean, cobalt, indigo, navy, royal, sapphire, teal, turquoise, ultramarine."

Okay, that's not so bad. I mean, yes, I would throw a book across the room if the heroine had 'beautiful beryl eyes,' but all those forms of blue have legitimate, modern, non-intrusive uses. How about face?

"Countenance, kisser, mug, puss, visage."

Again, all viable words. All good words, even. But is the hero in your modern-day fantasy really going to tell your heroine that she has a lovely countenance? Probably not. And unless you're writing epic historicals, nobody's likely to behold a grim visage. (Even then, please don't.) Most people have eyes, not orbs. Most people have sex, not intercourse. Most people, in short, use common, everyday words to do common, everyday things.

There's a sort of power to holding a thesaurus. All those words, just waiting for the right hand to place them lovingly upon the page! Properly handled, they could be magical. They could be spectacular. It's a little bit intoxicating, looking at those columns of synonyms and related words. There's an old commercial where a woman who's just won the lottery pauses and thinks to herself, "I could totally afford all this cheese." A writer who's just been handed their first thesaurus is likely to be thinking something similar: "I could totally use all these words." This is true. But even as eating all that cheese would make that woman extremely sick, using all those words would do some nasty things for your vocabulary.

What about specialized vocabulary?

Specialized vocabulary exists for a reason: to fill a genuine need. There are going to be times when no, really, it is a visage, and those are baleful cerulean orbs. We need all the words we have because all of them fill vital ecological roles in our vast vocabulary veldt. There will always be characters who say 'I am undergoing massive viral amplification' instead of 'I feel sick.' There will always be situations where you need to describe the specific parts of a ship, rather than just saying 'it was a big-ass boat.'

(Although a word of caution: a little specialized vocabulary can make you look knowledgeable and well-grounded in your subject material. Too much specialized vocabulary can make you look like a textbook. You need to tell a story, rather than providing a lesson plan. If your readers walk away with a few new words, that's awesome, but make them the spices, not the soup. Without familiar words to provide context, you might as well be writing your books in Martian.)

I am not recommending that you dumb down your writing, or that you reject the words you want in favor of words you think are simpler. I'm just saying that you need to use the words that are appropriate to the situation, and that you need to provide the necessary context to define them.

Trust your instincts.

Most of us will think first of the word that works best. The brain goes fumbling through its files, and picks up the right thing. Second-guessing that word choice is what turns rooms into chambers, eyes into orbs, and red hair into 'the heart's-blood of swans.' (Sadly a genuine example.) When you think you have the word you want, trust yourself. You can always change it later, and I think you'll find that, as you revise, you'll almost always be revising towards the simple.

A few of my favorite words.

Just in case today's topic has made you think that I dislike complicated words, here are a few of my favorites:

redact
necrosis
Stygian
terpsichorean
verdigris
threnody
oration
rapscallion
mondegreen
pendulous
autumnal
sepulcher
lugubrious


I may not get much of a chance to use them, but I love them all the same. Collect the words you love; save them; use them wisely. And when the thesaurus lumbers into view, release the velociraptors of savvy editing, and let the tribe eat well.
© 2010 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue was published by DAW in September of 2009. A sequel, A Local Habitation, was released in March 2010.

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