I've noticed a trend in fanfiction lately that has me concerned, and as the title of this post suggests, it has to do with the use of thesauruses. That said, my problem probably isn't what you think it is--as usual, I appear to be of the minority opinion on this issue. To find out what has me cheesed, look below the break.
Prior to discovering FiM I took part in several fanfiction communities, but Lord of the Rings was my first foray into derivative fiction, as both a reader and a writer. This was back before the Peter Jackson movies came out, mind you--ever since then, most LotR fanfiction seems to involve twelve-year-old girls shipping Legolas with anyone and anything (on an unrelated note, why are there no stories where Rainbow Dash and Legolas are shipped together? They've both been shipped with basically everyone else at this point (that's not a request, by the way)). Back then, the fanfic writing community was mostly pen-and-paper gamers, nerds of every stripe, and pseudo-intellectuals. And let me tell you: those stories had prose so purple it was ultraviolet. The worst fantasy novels you've ever read had nothing on some of the fanfiction I encountered, in terms of ridiculously obscure and only vaguely appropriate word choice.
I mention this to show that I am quite familiar with the results of thesaurus abuse, that tragic affliction which causes a writer to decide his or her work needs "spicing up" and that the best way to do this is to look up synonyms for common words and substitute them into the story without regard for the specific meaning of those words. You know you are seeing a story written by someone afflicted with this malady when you regularly begin to encounter words like antediluvian where old would be more appropriate, phlegmatic where a normal person would say slow, and convivial, frolicsome, or ebullient where happy would suffice.
This is not to say, of course, that there's anything wrong with any of those words. They're great words, and one of the marks of a great writer is the ability to use them in such a way that they serve the story, rather than detract from it. But simply find-and-replacing from a thesaurus leads to silliness like this: "Legolas was only too frolicsome to comply with Aragorn's declaration." I wish I was making that example up.
Although the pony fandom appears to have much less in the way of thesaurus abuse than any other fandom I've previously been a part of, it still exists. But while I think we can all agree that stuff like the example in the previous paragraph is a bad thing, what really worries me is the way that thesaurus has practically become a four-letter word among editors and reviewers. To my mind, no writer's arsenal is complete without a thesaurus and dictionary sitting by his or her elbow, and the way this valuable tool gets maligned concerns me.
To see what I'm talking about, one need only look at some of the fanfic writers' guides this fandom has produced. Ezn's guide puts it bluntly: "Although many would encourage writers to vary their word choices through thesaurus-(ab)use, I really don’t recommend it... If you’re going to use an unfamiliar word from a thesaurus, chances are you’re not going to use it right." The EqD Editor's Omnibus is less stringent, but still concludes that one should "stick with words everypony can understand." And more than once I've seen an inexperienced writer guilty of over-spicing their story's language told to put down their thesaurus before they hurt themselves, to stick with words they already know, or to quit trying to gussy up their writing.
While I agree with the general sentiment (find-and-replacing words with fancy-sounding synonyms which may or may not fit the needs of the narrative is bad), the general approach seems to me akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As a fandom, we're essentially telling beginning writers that when they sit down to begin writing, their word choice must be limited to their present vocabulary. I vehemently object to this line of reasoning: so far as I'm concerned, there's no better way to improve one's vocabulary than to write.
The trick, of course, is to teach people how to use a thesaurus properly. There's a reason my thesaurus and dictionary sit side-by-side on my desk, after all; if I pull out the thesaurus for any reason while writing, the very first thing I do is open up the dictionary and check the definition of whatever synonym I've just stumbled across. I read all of the definitions, not just the first one listed, and I look at the etymology of the word. This is what we need to be teaching writers to do, not just to avoid thesauruses at all cost. Heck, I make it harder than it needs to be; there are free online dictionaries and thesauruses where aspiring fanfic authors can look up a word, find its synonyms, and check their definitions in a matter of seconds.
Moreover, I don't use my thesaurus often. When I find that I've repeated a word several times in a single paragraph, or when I feel that a word I've used doesn't convey adequately the enormity/hilarity/whatever-ity of a situation, then I'll crack it open; the rest of the time, there's just no need for it. As simply as that, thesaurus abuse is averted, and the quality (and vocabulary) of fanfic can only be improved by the change.
Thesauruses are amazing tools, and few and far between are the amateur writers whose work could not be enhanced with their aid. But like any tool, it's dangerous in inexperienced hands. I firmly believe that in situations like this, the best course of action is not to denigrate and try to limit access to that tool, but to teach people how to use it properly and safely. Will some folks insist on doing things "wrong," and make an unholy mess of their fic in the process? Undoubtedly. But we as a fanfic-writing community should no more let that stop us than we let the presence of terrible fanfiction (and there's lots of it) stop us from writing in the first place.
A thesaurus is a wonderful thing. I like to think of myself as having a substantial vocabulary, and that can be attributed in part to words I learned while paging through one of these wonderful references while trying to improve my writing. I for one think that, as readers and writers of fanfiction (and presumably everyone who reads this is one or both of those. Otherwise, I imagine this wouldn't be a very interesting blog to follow), we should all recognize the value of this tool, even as we acknowledge the pitfalls to which its improper usage can lead.
My two cents.
P.S. Lest anyone think I'm passive-aggressively insulting Ezn and the folks who wrote the Editor's Omnibus, the authors of the quotes I used in this rant, let me assure you that I think both guides are full of practical and valuable advice. Heck, I put both of them on the links page of this blog. But on this issue, I find myself at odds with their proscriptions: I feel that authors should be encouraged to take advantage of their thesauruses, even as they're taught when not to use them (most of the time) and what to do when they've found a word they like the sound of (look it up in a dictionary and figure out if it's really the specific word they're after).