EVERGREEN: On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 14: When to Hide the Thesaurus

Sample paragraph: I saw Hal coming toward me across the office commons, waving. “What did the boss say?” he screeched. “Oh, Ron, please tell me he didn’t fire you!” he squealed.

If you read my last post, this should be a familiar snatch of dialogue. In addition to being an example of how strong verbs create strong images (in this case an owl in a three-piece suit), it is also an illustration of a pet peeve of mine: careless use of one of the most dangerous tools in the writer’s kit.

I speak, dear Reader, of the Thesaurus. 

Look up screech in the thesaurus—as I’m sure this writer did—and you’ll see words like shriek, squeal, scream. Look up squeal and you’ll get even more innocuous words such as cry, yell, yelp, wail. But that’s just the tip of the screech iceberg. As with most words it has a nuanced meaning that may limit its use. A screech isn’t simply a cry, it’s a “loud, harsh cry” but even the dictionary doesn’t tell the whole story. Screech has come to mean a sound like nails on a chalkboard and to be associated with witches, shrews (the human kind), and other unpleasant noise-makers.

Squeal similarly is associated with a pig or an over-excited teenaged girl. This is called “connotation” and it’s an important part of the cultural definition of a word.

Yeah, you may be thinking, so he squealed—that’s not so bad. A mere hiccup. So I use a few slightly “off” words. No biggie.

Let me use a stronger example. I had a writer I was mentoring recently write something like this: Watching Graham walk away from his jail cell, whistling, Jarrod was furious. “You’ll never get to spend that money, you traitor. You’ve made a cuckold of me for the last time!”

The operative word here is cuckold. The writer used it because his thesaurus apparently indicated it meant “to betray” (or, as a noun, “someone who has been betrayed.”) His protagonist had, indeed, been betrayed by his friend. So he grabbed this lovely, archaic word rather than use the more common “You’ve betrayed me for the last time”.

The problem? Cuckold does mean someone who’s been betrayed … sexually by their wife or lover. This word is so nuanced that it refers specifically to a man suffering a very intimate type of betrayal. It is not a word you can use generically without unintentionally comic results.

My advice to anyone who feels their vocabulary isn’t up to snuff is, hide your thesaurus and write naturally for you. Do this at least through your first draft, then while you’re editing if you want to look for a better word or a prettier word or a better phrasing, do so. If you need to enlist the aid of another writer, join a writing group or find a mentor to help you learn your tools (words) organically.

The tiniest word choice can completely change the reader’s understanding of a scene. This is why I harp on knowing what words mean. Not just what the Thesaurus coughs up, but what they mean in context and connotation.

For example, take this simple sentence: As I stepped down into the crowd, someone called my name. What a different impression do we get of the tone if we replace “someone” with “some punk”? Simple change—drastic results.

The moral of the tale: know your tools—words—before you use them. Don’t rely on the thesaurus, use a dictionary that gives the nuanced meanings of words and preferably see them used in a sentence.

Exercise: Changing the minimum of words, rewrite the sample sentences below to evoke the following emotions: fear, affection, dislike.

  • I looked up to see a young man waving at me.
  • I was surprised to see John Purdy walk into the room.
  • “Who is it?” Celeste asked, peering through the curtain.

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EVERGREEN: On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 14: When to Hide the Thesaurus — 5 Comments

  1. Writing teachers call this Roget’s Disease. It is not fatal, but seems to be an ailment of childhood, like mumps. Mostly as writers mature it goes away.

    Brenda

  2. Snarf!

    I hadn’t heard that one. I’ve heard it called Thesauritis, though. Definitely a childhood or teen disease. I think in some cases it comes with the insecurity of the “teen years”. Although I had one client who admitted she had read the Thesaurus from cover to cover and tried to memorize useful words because she felt her native vocabulary wasn’t literary enough.

    We had a little talk about writing what you know and knowing what you write…

  3. FEAR

    I looked up to see a young man recoiling from me.
    I was horrified to see John Purdy walk into the room.
    ‘Who is it?’ Celeste asked, cowering behind the curtain.

    AFFECTION

    I looked up to see a young man smiling at me.
    I was contented to see John Purdy walk into the room.
    ‘Who is it?’ Celeste laughed, peering through the curtain.

    DISLIKE

    I looked up to see a young man sneering at me.
    I was annoyed to see John Purdy walk into the room.
    ‘Who is it?’ Celeste grumbled, peering through the curtain.

  4. Once again, Bob, you nailed it.

    This is a good exercise, I think to demonstrate just how powerful verbs are in qualifying the emotions driving an action. The last one, especially, I think is especially illustrative of that power.

    Celeste’s attitude is defined by a single word. That’s power. Moreover, it can cast an emotional ambiance over the entire scene that this tiny little sentence is in.

    I think a large part of the muddiness and confusion I see in the work of amateur writers is because they don’t realize the power of the tools they’re using. As a result they toss around verbs like “screecched” and “sqealed”, “roared” and “bellowed” without realizing the potency of the emotional images those seemingly simple words evoke.