>Tips for Writers: The Thesaurus Throwdown

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This post is the first in what I hope will be a regular Friday discussion on Tips for Writers. Not that I know any more than anyone else, but I’ll put some things out there for people to consider, dispute, elaborate upon. The first one deals with the writing process itself.

In the September issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Mark Doty comes down hard on the thesaurus: “If you write a poem with the aid of a thesaurus, you will almost inevitably look like a person wearing clothing chosen by someone else. I am not sure that a poet should even own one of the damn things.” When I read that, I nodded, knowing from my stint as a teacher of Freshman composition that a thesaurus can be dangerous, much like an English-French dictionary can be abused by beginning language learners. Just because a word is in the thesaurus or the dictionary doesn’t mean it’s the right choice in a given situation.

But today the new issue of TWC arrived. (It came Priority Mail, for some reason; maybe the AWP folks thought I was having a writing emergency of some kind.) A letter writer, Ralph Culver of Burlington VT, complains about Doty’s comments, and says that it’s “one of the oddest statements I’ve ever read in your pages–and poets say some pretty strange things. . .” He goes on in that vein, defending the poor thesaurus, and the magazine allows Doty a response.

I confess that while I agree with Doty about the dangers of using a thesaurus, I’ve got one handy at all times while writing, and I do resort to it. But, knowing the dangers, I use it with extreme caution. I don’t set out to discover words I didn’t know existed–words that I might not be able to use properly, and that will almost certainly sound stilted in the context of my normal vocabulary. Instead, I simply use it to remind me of words I already know. Maybe everyone else has a better memory than I do, but when I’m writing I will often feel a word swirling in my brain just out of reach. I know that I’m looking for just the right choice, the precise noun that indicates the color I’m thinking of, the verb that states exactly the action that I want to describe (without having to rely on one of those evil adverbs). I struggle, and it doesn’t come. So I reach for the thesaurus and begin the hunt for just the right word. Usually–not always, unfortunately–I find what I was looking for and couldn’t remember. It’s a small triumph, but such is the life of a writer.

So, I mostly agree with Doty on this point, and I think Culver misses the point. A thesaurus can be dangerous in the hands of an amateur. But I keep one close just the same.

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