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The “Rules” of Writing: Don’t Reach for that Thesaurus!

February 16, 2012

I am not a fan of the so-called “rules of writing.” You know what I mean. Rules such as: show, don’t tell; write what you know; outline or else end up with a mess (or its converse: never outline, it will make your writing formulaic). Such rules have a purpose, but too often the purpose is obscured by the rule itself.

Perhaps it’s simply a natural aversion I have to being told what to do or think, but I tend to run away fast from anyone who professes to have all the answers. About anything. Too often I’ve seen newer writers get hung up on the do’s and don’t’s of writing to the point where they stifle their own creativity. Or sometimes they misunderstand the meaning of the underlying advice the rules are meant to give. Really, the only writing rule I recommend you follow is this: take all writing rules with a grain of salt.

So I was a bit disappointed when I recently came across a rule attributed to Stephen King, whom most will agree (yours truly included) is a master of the craft.

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

Now, had this been a quote from a young writer, I might have understood. As someone who is well into middle age, I can still remember a time when every word in my vocabulary seemed to be at the forefront of my brain, just waiting to be called into use. If I needed a particular word to convey a certain meaning, I merely had to pluck it from my mind. It came to me without effort. But now? Well, now there are times when I can hardly even remember how to spell the most basic words I know, much less recall the more nuanced ones. (At first I worried these memory lapses might be evidence of early onset Alzheimer’s; I’ve since learned they’re quite normal for someone my age. My peers jokingly refer to them as “senior moments.”)

If King’s quote had been “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is most likely the wrong word,” I wouldn’t be so bothered by it. I understand the sentiment behind the rule. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes small is better than big. Sometimes the simple trumps the complex. We all remember using a thesaurus to beef up that English paper in high school, only to discover our flowery prose didn’t improve our analysis or, for that matter, our grade.  No one wants to read something where the words feel so forced that they take you out of the story and into the thought processes of the author.

But prose can sometimes succeed or fail depending upon whether the writer chooses the right words. How many times have you sat at your keyboard and typed a word only to hit the delete key and type a different word in its place? And then you do it again several times. And then you do it again a week later when you reread your work. Sometimes the words available for recall on a particular day just don’t work.

The right word makes a sentence seamless. The wrong word is like a bump in the road. It might not stop you completely, but you notice it, and not in a good way. If my memory fails me and I use a thesaurus to help jog it, does that mean ipso facto I’ve chosen the wrong word? King seems to think so, but I respectfully disagree.

(By the way, I’ll bet ipso facto took some of you out of my sentence, didn’t it? And yet I didn’t use a thesaurus to select the term. Instead, blame my legal education. Had I used a thesaurus, I probably could have found a less intrusive word to say the same thing . . . )

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Julie Compton is the internationally published author of two novels, Tell No Lies and Rescuing Olivia, both from St. Martin’s Minotaur. She can be reached at julie@julie-compton.com.

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6 Comments
  1. Chris Hamilton permalink
    February 16, 2012 12:30 pm

    There were three things I wanted to say…

    Sometimes I deliberate over a word and choose what I think is a perfect work, then read it three weeks later and gasp in horror at the word I chose.

    I agree with the part about noticing words. Words are like air. When they work correctly, you don’t notice them.

    And the third thing…

    Ummmm, the third thing…

    I’ve got it on the tip of my tongue.

    Oops.

  2. Julie Compton permalink
    February 16, 2012 2:11 pm

    We are of the same generation. 😉

  3. February 16, 2012 2:27 pm

    King’s words stung when I read them, too. Not that I drag out the Thesaurus all that often, but there are times the fitting word is just out of reach. I’m with you, Julie.

    I do take issue with both you and Chris though describing yourselves as being in declining mental years. See me in twenty years. ☺

  4. February 16, 2012 3:14 pm

    I was going to take issue with this until I saw this: “If my memory fails me and I use a thesaurus to help jog it, does that mean ipso facto I’ve chosen the wrong word? King seems to think so, but I respectfully disagree.”

    Me too. The mind doesn’t work quite as well as it used to and sometimes I need a little help to find the perfect word that my mind can’t quite pull from the ether into consciousness.

  5. Chris Hamilton permalink
    February 16, 2012 3:25 pm

    The right tool for the right job. What Mr. King (and I use the title respectfully, not facetiously) is neglecting is the great big asterisk that goes next to every “never” statement about writing: “…unless it works.”

    At the end of the day, you do whatever works. If it helps you sell your book, if it helps you make it more appealing to readers, you do it. If it doesn’t, you shouldn’t do it.

    I believe Mr. King was being slightly sloppy with his presentation.

  6. February 16, 2012 3:55 pm

    I don’t believe in “write what you know” because it sort of boxes you in. I’m all about letting those creative juices flow. Sure, I’ve never killed anyone before, but I know what it feels like when you have adrenaline pumping through your body. I know what it feels like to cut through flesh (think poultry and beef). I even know what a blood curdling screams sounds like. I know what blood tastes like.

    Put that all together, and I can probably make a pretty convincing scene of a killer doing his business.

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