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Thesaurus - Tool or Crutch?

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction and Writing Resource' started by Herman Snerd, Feb 2, 2004.

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  1. Herman Snerd

    Herman Snerd Jedi Master star 6

    Registered:
    Oct 31, 1999
    Back when I was a fanfic n00b writing my first story, I kept a thesaurus close by so that rather than repeating the same words over and over again, I could "spice up" my writing with bigger and better adjectives.

    After my first couple of fics, I stopped using a thesaurus altogether. I read (probably here in the forums or in an e-mail) that a writer should speak with his/her natural voice and not use words nor normally in his/her vocabulary.

    In the time since then I've read more than a few fics where it seems the author (not pointing any fingers here) obviously used a thesaurus at least twice a paragraph and my opinion against using (or more specifically, over-using) a thesaurus has been cemented. I'm sure we've all run into this at least once or twice.

    So what's the general opinion here on using a thesaurus? For those who use one, how often do you refer to it? For those who don't, why not?

    Do you believe the use of a reference tool like a thesaurus can help a writer grow and expand his/her vocabulary, or is it a crutch that, by its ease of use, prevent the writer from becoming better?
     
  2. Spike2002

    Spike2002 Former FF-UK RSA and Arena Manager star 6 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Registered:
    Feb 4, 2002
    I use a thesaurus for words for the word "said", because it can really get overused. I just think its fresher than a hundred "said's" in every chapter.

    So my vote goes for tool. Besides, you can use lots of cool words ;)
     
  3. NarundiJedi

    NarundiJedi Jedi Master star 6

    Registered:
    Oct 8, 2001
    I find myself using the MS Word thesaurus most when I think of a word I want to say but I can't remember it exactly. I remember the general meaning of the word, what I'm trying to convey, and I see if the thesaurus on my computer has it in there. Another time I regularly use a thesaurus is when I think a word fits in a certain sentence. I use the thesaurus to check and make sure I'm right.

    One area where I might be accused of using a thesaurus a little too much is when I get technical. The only problem with this is that I write technical papers for a living, so writing a scientific or medical scene is second nature to me. Also, I've read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston in preparation for my current story. When you love a book as much as I loved that one, it's hard to not remember the details and the style with which it was written. It kind of rubbed off on me. ;)

    Jae Angel
     
  4. Xaara

    Xaara Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Jun 30, 2002
    I have a rather extensive vocabulary, so I don't refer to my Thesaurus often. When I do, it's usually because I want to use a word that's at my fingertips but not quite on the page. To that end, my Thesaurus is my closest companion. :)

    I read somewhere (sorry, I can't quote the source - I don't remember where it was) that the best way to expand vocabulary is to read intensively, extensively, and voluntarily. I don't think I've ever come across a word in a Thesaurus that subsequently became a part of my standard vocabulary - my words come from what I read. The more I write, the more comfortable I am with my writing style.

    Actually, now that I think of it, the last time I used my Thesaurus a great deal was during the writing of my Winter Challenge entry. I wrote entire long sections of the piece in somewhat archaic English, and every so often I would come across a word that didn't quite fit what I was trying to say. Out came my trusty battered book of synonyms, and in went a more appropriate word. ;)

    In many word processing programs (or at least in MS Word), a "Thesaurus" function is readily available - just right-click on a word and a list of synonyms appears beside it. I believe that this is often overused to the detriment of the author's voice, mostly because it's simple, quick, and easy. You don't have to search through a Thesaurus and hope that the word you're looking for is there in some form or another; all you have to do is pick a random substitute, plug it in, and call the work yours.

    For example, take this, the first few sentences of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls:

    [blockquote]He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass.[/blockquote]

    I ran it through MS Word and picked random synonyms for a few of the words. Here it is again:

    [blockquote]He lay horizontally on the russet, pine-needled floor of the woodland, his chin on his folded arms, and elevated overhead the air stream blustered in the pinnacles of the pine trees. The mountainside inclined gently where he reclined; but below it was precipitous and he could see the shadow of the oiled thoroughfare snaking through the passage.[/blockquote]

    The first passage doesn't use any "showy" vocabulary - it's simple and unassuming. It's Hemingway. The second (IMHO) is pretentious and doesn't let any of the author through. It's almost a shield between the reader and the writer - would you want to talk to someone who talked like that? Or someone who talked like the first passage is written.

    So, in sum, I think that a Thesaurus can be both a crutch and an asset. An asset when used wisely, a crutch when used to disguise perceived shortcomings in an author's vocabulary or writing style.
     
  5. dianethx

    dianethx Jedi Master star 6

    Registered:
    Mar 1, 2002
    I use the thesaurus a lot (the one on Claris Works; my version of Word doesn't have any depth). I find that when I read fics that do not use one, I keep adding words to their work. To me, it adds a great deal, filling in the world and their characters. It makes them seem more alive and real. However, that being said, it can be vastly overused.

    I also use the thesaurus when I'm looking for just the right word (and just can't think of it).

    Do you believe the use of a reference tool like a thesaurus can help a writer grow and expand his/her vocabulary, or is it a crutch that, by its ease of use, prevent the writer from becoming better?

    Obviously, some people think it is a crutch but I don't see it that way at all. Example - To view a scene where the color is always described the same way (the sky is blue... ) is to make it static and uninteresting. If used correctly, a thesaurus can help expand someone's vocabulary a lot and make them see the world more clearly - with all its complexity and beauty.
    And, no, the sky is not blue - it is pink and purple and green and aquamarine.

    However, Herman, your question is certainly an eye-opener in more ways than one. Now, I'm really depressed.
     
  6. MariahJade2

    MariahJade2 Former Fan Fiction Archive Editor star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Mar 18, 2001
    Tool. Right now it's holding my TV remote. It's great for throwing when I'm having difficulties, and makes a great paper weight. ;) Ok, actually, I mostly use it for reference, when I can't think of a word I'm trying to remember, or if I think I've over used something. I think reading a lot is more helpful when writing than a thesaurus.
     
  7. Keeper_of_Swords

    Keeper_of_Swords Jedi Master star 5

    Registered:
    Sep 20, 2003
    I use it a lot.
     
  8. _Derisa_Ollamhin_

    _Derisa_Ollamhin_ Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Jul 31, 2000
    That was an excellent example of overuse of the Thesaurus, Xaara, thanks. You should think about writing an article for the Newsletter... oh, wait... ;)

    I too have a large vocabulary, and am inclined to use it in my writing as well as my speech. A while ago, I was asked why I use so many large words, and I had to explain that it isn't the size, it's the fact that that one word means *exactly* what I mean to say at that moment.

    I think it may happen that there are readers who do not understand every word that is thrown at them, and even some who are turned off by that, but I've always found that dumbing my writing down for the lowest common denominator of intelligence feels like I am not writing in my real voice. It compromises the story for the sake of a few readers. I am usually unwilling to make that sort of change, although my beta-diva keeps trying to slip them in... and she has been known to be right, on occasion. ("Ah, pride... my favourite sin.")

    I do use my thesaurus, especially if I find I have over-used a particular word or phrase in a passage. It is an invaluable tool, although I can see how the resource could be stripmined to the detriment of a story, especially by authors less sure of what they are trying to say and how they want it to sound.


    *Derisa*
     
  9. dianethx

    dianethx Jedi Master star 6

    Registered:
    Mar 1, 2002
    Xaara, that is very interesting that you brought up Hemmingway. I know that a lot of people love his work (and he is considered one of America's finest writers) but if I were forced to only read his stuff or not read at all, I'd never read again. He is (to me) incredibly boring and flat. But this just points up the fact that different people love different styles of writing. Some love the language with all its nuances and rich detail - others love the way the plot flows with minimal wording. And both are equally valid.

    In Matthew Stover's Traitor, the language is rich and saturated with color and texture. I read his book first for plot and then again for the superb beauty of his language. It was obvious that he used a thesaurus and used it well.

    In the far infrared, he finds cinders of thirst that bake his throat. Higher, up in the visible wavelengths, gleam the crimson wire-stretched ligaments that sizzle within his shoulders; grinding glass-shard screams howl from his hip joints like the death shrieks of golder Ithorian starflowers.

    A lot of people would argue that it is too much, that it only impedes the story. To me, the variety of his language only pulls me further in and makes me feel Jacen's pain and empathize with the hero.

    But it can be overused. The question is - is it "wrong" or is it just someone's perception of wrongness?
     
  10. Daughter_of_Yubyub

    Daughter_of_Yubyub Jedi Grand Master star 6

    Registered:
    Jul 8, 2002
    It's a useful tool. I don't like using the same word too often within the same paragraph, so a thesaurus can be highly useful.
     
  11. Xaara

    Xaara Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Jun 30, 2002
    I'm sorry if I implied that I liked Hemingway, dianethx. :) I don't particularly care for (read=I can't stand) his style, but it is recognizable as a style cultivated by a person who loved language (albeit in a slightly different way than I do.) I could have put any quote in and substituted synonyms - it just wouldn't have seemed as human as the first. Yes, I think Hemingway could have used a little more variety in his vocabulary, but overuse of a language is just as dangerous as underuse of a language. I just wanted to demonstrate two extremes of literary style. Of course, this is where we take our first steps out of the black-and-white facts and into the gray realm of opinion. There aren't really any specific examples I can give of when I thought writing forced. It is (at least for me) one of those instances of "I can't define it but I know it when I see it."

    I agree completely about Traitor. Sometimes that book makes me feel horribly inadequate as a writer - it's just so beautifully written. But I don't think the eloquence of that book is something that could be created or duplicated through the use of the Thesaurus. I obviously can't speak for the author, but his writing style remains constant throughout the book, leading me to believe that Stover must think the way he writes. I know I couldn't state anything the way he can - my mind simply doesn't function in that same way. Similarly, I believe that the first word that comes to mind, while always subject to editing, substitution, or deletion, is most likely the best word for the job. English is a wonderful language in that it has so many words that mean so many specific things. I second Derisa in saying that finding the exact right word is something every author seeks to do.

    The thing with Traitor, and with books like it, is that every word is accurate. There is no superfluous language. I read most of Traitor out loud to my brother and sister, and it sounded almost like an epic poem when spoken aloud. It was quite an experience.

    The question is - is it "wrong" or is it just someone's perception of wrongness? I suppose that in the end, it all comes down to perception. What I perceive as awkward or forced may sound poetic to someone else; what I see as great writing has often been criticized by others as substandard. It's an interesting question, and it is in great part up to the individual to decide for himself how to interpret any given work.

    (BTW, some of the best writing I've ever read is here on the Boards. I don't know if it's just because we're playing with someone else's characters or if it's because we're a fanfiction community with nothing to lose but posting privileges, but there's a freedom of expression and a willingness to experiment here that I haven't found anywhere else. I've discovered quite a few gems that - unfortunately - will never make it into the "real world.")

    EDIT: See GuerreStellari's post. *goes back to fix Hemingway; feels slightly less intelligent than normal* :)
     
  12. GuerreStellari

    GuerreStellari Jedi Master star 2

    Registered:
    Nov 23, 2003
    I'm not going to claim that I have a huge vocabulary; but I think I'm articulate enough. I use the MS Word thesaurus (shift + F7, how convenient) usually to find a word that's on the tip of my tongue, but also at times to find a more expressive alternative. Especially because I tend to "favor" certain adjectives over others.

    And guys, Hemingway has only one "M". [face_devil]

    Speaking of Hemingway, I've noticed that my writing style sometimes imitates his. This is bizarre, because I don't like him very much. As far as the "perfect" way to write, I would say Salman Rushdie is one of my favorites. His style is fantastic, and I'd much rather imitate him than Hemingway.

    Here's an excerpt (I know, I know, I'm off on a tangent, but bear with me!):

    "...I must interrupt myself. I wasn't going to today, because Padma has started getting irritated whenever my narration becomes self-conscious, whenever, like an innocent puppeteer, I reveal the hands holding the strings; but I simply must register a protest. So, breaking into the chapter which, by a happy chance, I have named, 'A Public Announcement', I issue (in the strongest possible terms) the following general medical alert: 'A certain N.Q. Baligga,' I wish to proclaim - from the rooftops! Through the loudhailers of minharets! - 'is a quack. Ought to be locked up, struck off, defenestrated. Or worse: subjected to his own quackery, brought out in leprous boils by his mis-prescribed pill. Damn fool,' I underline my point, 'can't see what's under his nose.'"
    -p. 65, Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

    He keeps interrupting his own story! He rocks! [face_laugh]



     
  13. Herman Snerd

    Herman Snerd Jedi Master star 6

    Registered:
    Oct 31, 1999
    I read somewhere (sorry, I can't quote the source - I don't remember where it was) that the best way to expand vocabulary is to read intensively, extensively, and voluntarily. I don't think I've ever come across a word in a Thesaurus that subsequently became a part of my standard vocabulary - my words come from what I read. The more I write, the more comfortable I am with my writing style.


    Excellent point. This is what I meant by the "ease of use" caveat about a thesaurus. The point that was made to me about using a thesaurus is that you shouldn't use words that you don't know, and a thesaurus makes it very tempting to do just that. Just because two words have a common meaning doesn't necessarily make them interchangeable.
     
  14. Melyanna

    Melyanna Jedi Padawan star 4

    Registered:
    Jul 19, 2001
    Just because two words have a common meaning doesn't necessarily make them interchangeable.

    Couldn't agree with you more, Herman. There's a line in The Miracle Worker which I'll paraphrase, because I'm too lazy to get my copy--"You shouldn't use words you can't spell." The same definitely holds true when you're talking about meanings. If you've never seen the word used in a sentence before, you probably oughtn't use it. :p

    My thesaurus use is rather like Narundi's. I use it when I can't remember the word I really want, but know synonyms.

    Mel
     
  15. dianethx

    dianethx Jedi Master star 6

    Registered:
    Mar 1, 2002
    Xaara, Thanks for clearing the Hemingway thing up. My 15 year old is currently reading him for English class. She loves to read but absolutely hates his stories. She says that he puts her to sleep.

    As for Traitor, I've read it many times. Sometimes I read it for the sheer joy of the language. Have you ever gotten giddy reading - rushing through the words and then rereading them and savoring the beauty of it?

    I also agree that there are some superb writers out there. Sometimes I just want to throw up my hands, thinking I'll never be that good but other times, I'll look at a sentence and think "oh lovely. I got it right." And then my readers pick out the very same sentence and talk about it. Bliss!

    Back to topic... the thesaurus can be overused and it can detract from the storyline. It becomes a fine line to walk. Luckily, the boards here are so varied that we can find fics that suit our own styles perfectly.

    When I use a thesaurus, I do tend to go through the listing extensively, to find just the right word. But I do use words in the thesaurus that I would use in everyday language. Except in one way - I also make up words (change nouns into verbs, verbs into nouns, that sort of thing) but, of course, that isn't a thesaurus problem, is it?!
     
  16. LadyPadme

    LadyPadme Manager Emeritus star 5 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Registered:
    Sep 26, 2002


    I also use a thesaurus on my MS Word for a word I can't think of but to which I know the synonyms. Also, there are times when I find myself using the same word over and over and I feel I have to substitute another word to avoid redundancy. I find it a very handy tool.
     
  17. geo3

    geo3 Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Sep 29, 2002
    I sometimes use a thesauraus in a slightly different way. Often it's not so much a variation on a word I'm looking for, but a way of expressing a particular mood. If I the stuff stored on the brain's hard drive just isn't giving me what I want, I will often skim through a thesaurus page for a word that's close to an idea I'm trying to express, and just let the words wash over me with all of their different meanings and nuances. (I love words, I really do.) Occasionally a word jumps out at me, and sets the thinking process off into a new direction.
     
  18. Darth_Tim

    Darth_Tim Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Feb 26, 2002
    I guess I'm a writer who thinks it's better to have a direct way of telling a compelling story than an aesthetically pleasing way of saying nothing.

    -Tim
     
  19. Raven

    Raven Administrator Emeritus star 6 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Registered:
    Oct 5, 1998
    I'll have something to say on the use of the Last of the Dinosaurs later [face_mischief], but for now, a random question: how many people who read Traitor went on to read Heroes Die and Blade of Tyshalle?

    (On that note, I'm pretty happy that Stover is doing the Episode III novel. :D)
     
  20. Kit'

    Kit' Manager Emeritus star 5 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Registered:
    Oct 30, 1999
    Thesaurus' make me go 'ugh'. I like them, I consider them a useful tool for finding out the word that you know you should be using, but just can't find. Sometimes it is more then obvious (and irritating) that someone has used a thesarus over and over again with little heed to the actual best use of language. Plain and simple is often best for conveying an idea and sometimes excess words or fancy words do conceal or dull a meaning that simple language would have made stronger.

    As for 'said' well that is an agruemtn in itself. James Marsden (famous Aussie writer of whom I am fond) once related that an editor friend of his opens new manuscripts in the middle and reads the dialogue. If it looks like the person has gone through the thesaurus for words to replace said then she puts it down.

    Kithera
     
  21. dianethx

    dianethx Jedi Master star 6

    Registered:
    Mar 1, 2002
    Now Kit, that's interesting.
    As for 'said' well that is an agruemtn in itself. James Marsden (famous Aussie writer of whom I am fond) once related that an editor friend of his opens new manuscripts in the middle and reads the dialogue. If it looks like the person has gone through the thesaurus for words to replace said then she puts it down.

    I look at dialog and if they are using "said" over and over again, I think that they aren't too serious about their writing - that they couldn't bother to look for something else to describe the conversation. But, then, I'm not an editor, just a insatiable reader and sometime-writer. Different viewpoints.... That also explains why I find a lot of books to be bland and uninspiring.


    As for Stover writing Ep. 3, I am also thrilled that he is going to be the one to do it. It should be a wonderful book. As to the other Stover question, I haven't read his non-SW books yet. I've been writing too much lately to sit down and read a lot of the newer fiction but as soon as I have time, I will read his work.
     
  22. MariahJade2

    MariahJade2 Former Fan Fiction Archive Editor star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Mar 18, 2001
    I had difficulty separating Stovers writing style from the content, I must admit, though taking that into account,I still think he over described. I just couldn't abide Traitor, it was so far from Star Wars for me that I could barely get through it. This goes under the heading of perception, and I guess illustrates just how subjective and personal writing is. What some see as rich and eloquent, I found voyeristic and unecessary. It was like a camera lingering in slow motion on a scene of graffic violence. I didn't need to have each moment of pain described in such minute detail. For me the point was made and belabored. I guess Raven, you can tell I didn't go on to read any of his other books. :p

    What is probably true of a lot of people, I think, is our minds learn words best when we see them in context, rather than in isolation like a thesaurus.
    Seeing how a word is used and the flavor of the sentence teaches you more than a bland list in a book. That's why read, read, read is always a good thing. That's not to say a thesaurus isn't useful. It is as long as it's not done to excess.
     
  23. AlrikFassbauer

    AlrikFassbauer Jedi Padawan star 4

    Registered:
    Apr 2, 2003
    Someone told me that repeating words might be considered by professionals as a "limited amount of words" - thus meaning non-professionality with handling texts (writing).

    However, I decided to ignore him, and explicitely use repeating of words as a means to stress, to emphasize things.

    Once I read that in ancient literary traditions repeating words as a tool for emphasizing things might have been widely known (and used) , but it seemed to have died out later. Homer's Illiad and the Oddyssey feature this, for example.

    I well agree with geo3 . I try to use words - language - because of its richness - richness to express moods, especially. However, I've often come across the fact that there are feelings, emotions which simply cannot expressed by words - at least not by me. To describe this, I created two sayings for me : a) "Some things cannot be expressed by words which don't exist for them." b) "Ah ! The limitations of mundane / earth-bound languages !" The second "saying" was created by me to show in an own fantasy-story the view from a Goddess, which wants to express things to an adorant, but she cannot, because he doesn't have words for what she wants to describe or express. So he couldn't understand it, and she must use other , more simple words. (Story can be found in bio.)

    Another thing is, that I'm German - and thus English isn't my first language. In my own language, I'm far better sophisticated with my use of words, whereas in English I often fear that people might not understand what I mean. Also, I actually try to speak in this way - of course writing - like in these Forums - is unlike speaking, but I try to write like I speak and vice versa. I know that I often write in bulletin boards like as if I was writing a letter :D , but I can't do anything against it. ;)

    I know of some languages which have in some cases several words for which in English, for examle, there exists only one. Greek is a very prominent example. Sometimes, when I read high-level-texts about culture, archaeology or so, I find some phrases that are still in the original language (for example "pars pro toto") , because in the language wherein the writer expresses himself or herself, there doesn't exist a phrase to exactly describe what the author means. I often have difficulties with such phrases, because I can speak only German and English. *sigh*.

    For writing in English, I have especially difficulties, because I sometimes don't know whether a desired word *really* expresses in English the same as I want it to. I have 3 dictionaries English-German. I sometimes find myself browsing through all three dictionaries, just to find the word I'm looking for, and cross-checking whether it really says what I want it to say.

    Last : Personally, I believe that foreigners can do better word-games with a language, than "insiders", because they are not "riding the track" like "insiders". What I mean is, that like a train which cannot get out of its track, users of a certain language are so used to it (should I write "over-used" ? ;) ) that they often don't see the possibilities for word-games in it. It's like creativity : Creativity is often achieved by "thinking around the edge" , and using sideways instead of the main highway. This is true to almost every field of knowledge.
     
  24. MariahJade2

    MariahJade2 Former Fan Fiction Archive Editor star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Mar 18, 2001
    I had to go look this up but I knew I remembered reading about using the word, "said".

    The book is The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. And number 19 was titled, Don't be afraid to say,"said".

    The authors opinion was that "said" was a transparent word-a pointer to a who, who said something. He said that "any other attribution word will stick out and perhaps distract the reader without need unless the situation really does demand a "scream" or a "sigh" or a "shout". You should use the invisble word "said" 90 percent of the time. Of course you will use other words like "asked", "replied", "told" etc - when the context makes such a word obviously appropriate. But you should use even these only when it really does seem natural in context."

    He calls this one of those "author worries" that readers just don't think about, and that we shouldn't wear out the thesaurus.

    I wonder if we do worry over this too much?
     
  25. GuerreStellari

    GuerreStellari Jedi Master star 2

    Registered:
    Nov 23, 2003
    AlrikFassbauer raises a good point! I often find myself wanting to write an Italian word into the story, because it expresses exactly what I need expressed. And English often has no direct translation for these words. Two good examples are "anzi" (which is hard to describe; it's like writing "but" also as a negation, if you know what I mean) or "ormai" (which is impossible to describe, I would need an English-Italian dictionary). When it comes to these words, I'll try writing a very simple word which relates to one of these and then I'll try searching the thesaurus for the closest English equivalent. And this is to say nothing of German, which has numerous untranslatable words! But, anyway, in these circumstances, I definitely use the thesaurus as a crutch.
     
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