Monday, May 17, 2010

On Words...and finding them

HALLIE: Words. They are a writer's stock in trade, our coin of the realm, our legal tender, the rope with which we hang ourselves. I confess, I do agonize over words, and so often I can just about taste the one I'm reaching for but it's hopping around, just beyond my peripheral vision (to mix metaphors.)

Do you agonize over finding, as Flaubert would have it, "the mot juste", the precisely appropriate word, torturing your brain and anyone with the bad luck to be in the house with you when you're writing, or Googling thesauruses until you do?

Or do you grab the first word that comes to you, following author Roddy Doyle's sage advice: "Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, e.g. 'horse,' 'ran,' 'said.'"

Do you eschew or embrace the Thesaurus? (Do you eschew or embrace "eschew"?)

HANK: Oh, when we're writing a news story and searching for words, my producer always says--"get the Thesaurus!" And I say: "No, we can think of it on our own. The Thesaurus never works. Never." (The other difference is that when she goes to the thesaurus, she goes on line. I turn for my battered book. But that's another blog.)

So in my real job, no. I don't use it. The right word is never there.

How, um, ever. When I'm home, and writing books, sometimes when I get stuck I pull up the Thesaurus, yes, on line, and read through the words. I hardly ever use any of them. But it's just--shopping. And seems to get my brain working.

Eschew? Gesundheit.

HALLIE: "Mercy buckets"... as we used to say when I was a kid. Followed by "Yucca, yucca, the laugh of the desert puh-lant." Can't find that in a Thesaurus.

RHYS: I am dismayed at the way our vocabularies have shrunk these days. Everything has to be quick and efficient--CU Later. when I read letters written by Victorians I am ashamed at how we have let them down. On the other hand I do not like reading books in which the writer has tried hard to be "literary" and has agonized over a metaphor or a poetic description. When I write I don't want my readers to be conscious of the words on the page. I want them picturing the scene I am creating.

Occasionally I'll get stuck and usually reach for something called The Word Menu which is like a Thesaurus-lite. I often find the word is on the tip of my tongue and as I browse it suddenly comes to me. Sometimes when I'm writing and I can't come up with the word I want I'll leave a row of xxxx's and come back to look it up later. That way I don't break the flow of a tense scene.

ROBERTA: I tend to keep things simple too--but I do have a thesaurus on the desk and I do also Google a word if the prose sounds too boring. Yes and I use Rhys's technique of the row of xxxx's--for everything--names, words, plot points! Words seem to evaporate more easily these days from my overloaded brain so I don't mind using any prop that works.

JAN: Usually what I'm fussing over is a new way to express an action, so it's a verb I'm looking for, and a verb I plan to use in a slightly different way, so the Thesaurus wouldn't be any help at all.

And I agree with Hank most of the time the Thesaurus doesn't work, but every now and then, when I know the word I'm searching for but just can't access the brain file, the Microsoft Thesaurus bails me out.

HALLIE: Ah, verbs. I remember in "Mary Poppins" P. L. Travers describes one of the children as "trapezing" across the floor. I confess to having stolen it...once.

ROSEMARY: I tend to put the pedestrian word in the first draft and if it needs jazzing up I hope I remember it the next time around. Sometimes it strikes me as silly to have someone "sprint, bolt or jog" when run would do just as nicely, so I let them run.

I do have to remind myself to put in adjectives and I try not to use "beautiful, nice or very" but I'm sure I do! In those instances a thesaurus might help but I think mine is holding up a plant...

HALLIE: That's not a bad thing. After all, the fiction writing gurus tell us to eschew adverbs and adjectives and stick to nouns and verbs.

So what's your word for word?
Synonyms: term, expression, name, verbiage...


  1. I don't like to slow the writing by finding that 'perfect' word, but on the re-read I try to get rid of as many repeats and weak words as possible. First shot: the 'synonym' click in Word. Next, my Synonym Finder. Also love the Flip Dictionary, and Descriptionary when I need more.

    But I don't like going too fary beyond my rather bland vocabulary. I don't like to stop reading to look up words (anyone read Barry Eisler? Great writer, but Rain uses very fancy words sometimes) and figure my readers won't either

  2. I think it's important to get the story down first and then polish the language. But I find on-line thesauruses (thesauri?) ridiculous.

    Once at a fundraising job I held briefly, I circulated to staff members a parody of an "ask" letter in which I had substituted the thesaurus's choice for all the important words. I thought it was funny. Most of the other people had no clue. And this was at a college! We're definitely losing the nuances of our language.

  3. As much as I am a bibliophile, I am a logophile at heart.I may not stumble upon the perfect word in the first draft, but my Flip Dictionary is dog-eared and shabby from sleuthing through it for just the right on in subsequent drafts.

    And my captcha word is sluar. Hee! This could be a monster, or a person who sleuths words!

  4. I use my Synonym Finder when I'm editing and looking for a better word choice. Often, the list of words will flip a switch in my brain to something I hadn't thought of before.

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  6. Peg,
    That's what I find happens too. It might not provide the right word, but it provides a clue to the right word.

    I'm curious about this Flip dictionary Terry and Silver James reference.

    Terry, I have the Descriptionary but found it only applied to topics I didn't need.

    Sheila, that letter sounds hilarious.

  7. I rarely use the thesaurus to jazz up the language. I use it often, though, when I want a more precise way to express something than I've been able to come up with. That overloaded or overaged brain sometimes can't find it on its own. The online thesaurus is limited, but usually if I try the word, then try the word it gives that is closest to what I'm looking for, and keep going, I get there eventually. Or it just pops up in my head while I'm doing the exercise.

  8. I don't actively use a thesaurus while I'm writing but I also find it handy when I'm proofing and discover that I've used the same word too often and too close together. I never have thought it necessary or impressive to use fancy words - I'm not a fancy guy - but sometimes changing out a word does help the flow. I'd recommend keeping one close if you're not use to using the one in your software.

  9. I'm with Bob, forget the fancy words. But it's so great when you can use a familiar word in an unfamiliar way. Like this: "A car trolls by slowly..." Or this observation: "Dread takes up very little space." Both from Jess Walters' Citizen Vince, a virtual lesson in using words in afresh ways.

  10. I keep it simple on the first draft, too. It's more important to me to get the story down first, and hopefully more exciting descriptions/words will come to me on draft two.

    I've often searched the thesaurus for great words or for ones I can substitute for a word I've overused, but I often come up empty handed. I like the "xxx" suggestion!

  11. I do xxx too! Sometimes if I stop, the whole thing just goes out of my head. Later, I can think of dozens of possibilities.

  12. I don't use the thesaurus very often either, but sometimes I know the word I want and it doesn't come. When they happens, I'll resort to the book my father gave me for Christmas - The Dictionary for Writers - and that has been wonderful. It even points out words that shouldn't be used in a certain way. I also have the Flip Dictionary.

  13. Rhys, I agree with your "When I write I don't want my readers to be conscious of the words on the page. I want them picturing the scene I am creating."

    I was on a panel once where the subject was "Making the Words Count." My contribution to the discussion was that it's our job as writers to make the words invisible. You should have seen the mouths fall open, followed by a lot of nods. If a word stops a reader, s/he is yanked out of the scene and the story. To the dismay of my editor, who would like me to write with a dictionary beside me to spruce up my paltry vocabulary, I work hard not to let that happen.

    There is one Thesaurus I use occasionally: the Emotion Thesaurus on The Bookshelf Muse website. I occasionally discover fresh mannerisms for my characters there.