A. L. Buehrer What I Write and Why

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dictionary and Thesaurus

One of the easiest ways to make your writing stronger and more artistic is to broaden your vocabulary. It’s natural for people to know the definitions of a great many words in their own language and quite a few in others, but the percentage that we actually use in speech or writing is pretty measly. We tend to favor certain words.

  That’s okay, until certain symptoms of limited vocabulary arise. I don’t like using the same word twice in a paragraph, especially a descriptive word, like an adjective or adverb. There’s a little more leeway with nouns. And, of course, if there really is no other word for a particular noun, there’s not much you can do about it. Verbs should only be used twice in a paragraph intentionally for emphasis, in my opinion.

  When you turn to your thesaurus to find a better synonym, there is something you have to be aware of. First, let me illustrate the problem. I was once working on a group English comp. project in college. (I hated it.) There were three of us and we were writing the paper “together”. We were writing a business proposal that supposedly was trying to solve the problem of over-crowded prisons by re-opening Alcatraz. (I hated it.) We kept having to use the term “violent criminals” over and over. The forensics major who was sort of spearheading the whole idea noticed this and suggested we find a synonym for “violent”. She decided she liked the word “vehement.” (I hated it.)

  Red light. A slightly more wordly-wise writer knows that a “vehement criminal” is by no means the same thing as s “violent criminal”, or a “pugnacious criminal”, or a “ferocious criminal.” The point here can be summed up in a definite fact of life. There is no such thing as a synonym.

  This is why you also will need to keep your dictionary handy. There are really two reasons to vary word choice: for color and variation, and to be sure you’re getting the best word for the situation. Clarity is generally considered to be a virtue in writing of any kind. In the interest of the clearest possible description, you want the word that means exactly what you want to say. When we say “violent criminal” we mean a criminal that has committed a violent crime such as murder, or assault. We do not mean a criminal that shows intense feeling. (Another so-called “synonym” for “vehement” was “convicted”, but it might have taken from my point to say we didn’t mean that.)

  You can use a thesaurus to take the ambiguity out of your writing and to make your descriptions more vivid. Think about the word “fight.” Somebody says, “Oh, they got in a fight” and you’re not absolutely sure how you are supposed to take it. Depending on the context, you may be able to make a safe guess. If we’re talking about a couple of girls who used to be friends, you might imagine they argued over some issue that was important to them. If we’re talking about a couple of cats, they might have clawed each other’s faces viciously and make horrible noises. Or it could be the other way around, but we don’t really know.

  The mystery is cleared up a little if you say, “they got in an argument”, or “they got in a wrestling match.” You can also imply things about the nature of a character by the words you use on him or her. “He walked in” is one thing, “he stalked in,” or “he shuffled in,” or “he swaggered in” have different implications, entirely.    

  I still prefer physical books to online sources. Online dictionary and thesaurus tools vary quite a bit in quality and usability. I still use them when hauling giant books with me is impractical but at home, I stick to the paper. One thing I like about using books versus the internet is I often end up finding other words that I wasn’t even looking for alongside my target. Whatever you prefer, getting in the habit of utilizing these sources is guaranteed to improve your writing overall. 

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