Archive for December 2nd, 2008

When you’re writing, you’ll occasionally get stuck for a word. You may sit at the keyboard for a few minutes, waving your opposite hand around in a motion of stirring the vapors, trying to conjure the correct word you’re looking for.

It’s something like…

Young writers, especially young pretentious writers, tend to use thesauri incorrectly at these moments (and others). Sure, I own about four of the little buggers, all indexed differently, but they’re deadly vipers lying in wait for the unwary. Hear those pages rustle as you flip through to find your starting point. It’s not entirely unlike the rattle of a snake, true?

But with a feeling of…

All words have at least two types of definitions. There is the dictionary listings, call “denotations.” Many a writer has fallen for the mistake of taking the dictionary definition for the alpha and omega of words. Au contraire, mon frair. Words are not interchangeable gears. Words have feeling and emotions, and most importantly they have accepted societal use. Take for example “fall” and “plummet.” While it maybe okay to fall every now and then (unless you’re getting fragile of bone) you definitely want to avoid plummeting. Their denotations are basically the same, “to move downward rapidly.” Their connotations, however, are very different.

It really should be more…

As the writer, you need to be very aware of connotations. They mean the difference between connecting with and engaging your reader or dropping them off a cliff (there to plummet to whatever awaits in the kitchen). They also can be the difference between saying this is merely aggravating or it’s something driving you out of your skull.

But that’s not what a southerner would use…

Want to know a quick way to get punched. Go to a bar in Atlanta and order a “Pepsi.” No. Really. I’ll wait. See, words also have regionality (yes, I just made that up, know what I mean?) to them. In Atlanta, even if you want a Sprite, you say “Coke.” “Coke” for them is like “pop” or “soda.” Plus, there is a distinct difference between someone who says, “Put gas in the car,” and another character that says, “Drive the auto to the Mobile station.”

But I already used that word in this paragraph…

This is where we get into trouble. There’s a writing dictum of not repeating words. This dictum, while good generally, is full of crap directly. You do not want a character to say, “You have to perambulate before you can run,” simply because they walked over to tell someone that line. What this should be is that if you’re continuing to use the same word over and over you need to reassess it. Are you doing it to create an effect? Can you rewrite either sentence to eliminate the need for the word (like you step over the cat to tell someone, “You have to walk…”). Simply finding another word in the thesaurus is not the solution. In the end it’s better to repeat a word than to create a tortured structure of a sentence or throw in an archaic terms that tosses the reader out of the story. Remember the goal is to keep the reader from seeing the words but to continue to enjoy (yes, you can enjoy horror) the story.

It’s right on the tip of my…

Many errors in thesauri usage occur when a writer is ashamed of their vocabulary. In the end, writing is about arranging the words in a clever order, not the words themselves. Even a six-grade vocabulary is perfectly acceptable to write with (most newspapers are written at this level). Simple plain english (or whatever language you use) is the goal. Get out of the way of the story. Use words you know and don’t try to impress anybody but yourself. Afterwards nobody goes to their friends saying, “This author uses (this big word) in their writing, you gotta read them.” They’ll rave about a good story instead.

Normally the first word you think of is the correct one. Trust your instinct.


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