Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Thoughts on Thesauruses

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).


  1. I agree with all of this, and I've always used your method as well. It's just common sense.

  2. "...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))."

    You know, I've been kind of stuck for a new idea after that last one-shot, but now I'm inspired!

    But yeah, I see this attitude with particular reviewers, but to an even more severe degree than just quashing five-dollar words. I've seen markup on fics chastising authors for using uncommon, but by no means obscure, words only *because* they're not common enough.

    It's a balancing act between wanting to make the work accessible to a large audience and not compromising one's own writing style to do so, and it's sometimes not clear where one can establish that equilibrium.

  3. Hmm...

    To be quite honest, I can count the number of times I've used a thesaurus on one hand. I like to think I have a fairly wide vocabulary and most of that has come from reading - from seeing words and figuring out their meanings in context (or perhaps by using a dictionary). Of course, I've always been a very plain, straightforward writer, so I seldom find use for more esoteric words.

    But I see your point. What I'm taking away from this is "don't use a thesaurus without a dictionary".

    Guide amended (or ameliorated):
    "That isn’t to say you shouldn’t use thesauruses, though – you just shouldn’t use unfamiliar words. You might like to consider using a dictionary program with a thesaurus feature such as the excellent WordWeb (or a dictionary and a thesaurus, if you like books). This will allow you to familiarise yourself with unfamiliar words before using them – pay close attention to the “use in a sentence” examples, and do a bit of Google research on the word if it sounds particularly strange to you."

    Now I have a two-paragraph-long footnote...

    1. Clearly, footnotes are to you what parenthetical comments are to me. Don't fight it, Ezn! Embrace the asides!

      Seriously though, I approve of the change. Thesauruses are like booze--enjoy in moderation, and remember that excessive or inappropriate use will make you look like a fool.

  4. "antediluvian" Oh Dirk Strider! :D

    Well. In retrospect, the usage was apropos!

  5. The first thing you have to realize is that, the moment you get followers, any suggestion you make becomes a request, regardless of what your intentions are. (See also "male OC shipped with mentally handicapped R63 Derpy Hooves"; the story's quite good.)

    Excellent points in this article. Speaking on behalf of the pre-readers, if I may be so bold, our approach is very hands-off and yes, proscriptive. We're not willing or able to teach people how to use a thesaurus and it's far better to tell the fledgling writer "don't" and save ourselves a lapful of "far too frolicsome". There are far too many ways a poor or inexperienced writer can turn mediocre writing into a headache, and the less we -- and by extension, a rejected author -- have to focus on, the better the chances of a story coming back improved. That said, I'll run this by the guy in charge of the document and see if we can't come up with something a little more constructive.

    As a sidenote, is an excellent reference resource and I have it in my browser's favorites bar. You can thesaurus up a word, click the synonym you want to use, and then tab over to the dictionary to get a few dozen definitions from various sources.

  6. If I may use a sports metaphor, I think this is a white belt/black belt problem. White belts are often told "never do X" and "always do Y". This is to train them in the basics without all the distractions that advance techniques and concepts would introduce and to avoid the inevitable mistakes they would make when trying things they don't yet understand. Once they become black belts, lots of old rules no longer apply and may even be directly violated.

    As a "white belt rule" for novice writers, "Never use a thesaurus," is probably a good thing. The problem with that, of course, is getting anyone to admit that they are a beginner.

  7. What would I be without my trusted thesaurus? That'd make writing much more difficult.

    That said, find-and-replace certainly isn't how I use it. Sometimes, I need to be refreshed on other ways to say an idea, so the flow remains unbroken. Thesauruses are great tools, then, on refamiliarizing me with alternatives. I never choose a word I don't know!

  8. I very rarely:

    Use a thesaurus, but when I need it, I definitely need it. Like Mark Twain says, "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."


  9. I tend to only use the thesaurus for the same reasons you do: if I'm using one word too much, or if I need to set a specific tone (usually a humorous/sarcastic one) and use an intentionally confusing word to do so. As for telling other authors not to use it, iisaw's comment above phrased what I had to say about that much better than I could have on my own. The Omnibus was built as an attempt to set a minimum standard we were hoping story submissions would aim for, so there are parts of it that are exaggerated a bit for the sake of simplicity. I know the "Show Vs. Tell" part I wrote has been called out for that more than once. XD

  10. I'll use a thesaurus to alleviate word repetition or to jog my memory, but I never select a word I don't already know, unless it's necessary jargon. That said, this practice doesn't limit me much, as I've got a good vocabulary. I've only encountered one word to date in a fanfic that I had to look up. I have zero problem sending a reader to the dictionary, and if he moves on to another story as a result, then so be it. Additional rules I keep:
    Use big words for precision of meaning. Don't use them just for the sake of using them.
    More often than not, make the word's meaning evident from context.
    Make sure the word fits the mood of the scene and the character under focus. Twilight's thoughts would be a good place for big words; narration about Snips would not.

    And I'm psyched for when Chris gets around to savaging my fic, which should be in about... two years. Hm.

    1. And I'd also like to add that I'm eminently dismayed when I see a reviewer tell a writer to remove a big word, not because it's used inappropriately, but because he thinks making a reader look up a word is a bad idea.

    2. It really is a bad idea, though. Nothing draws a person out of a story more than them going, "Wait, what does this word mean?" There's a line between "big" and "obscure", yes, but you also have to remember just who you're writing for, in this fandom anyway.

    3. I'd like to be the Devil's Advocate here, by saying that I actually do like looking up new and obscure words. I love being challenged and learning new things, and if need be, I can always pick up where I've left off.

      Sometimes a really obscure word can have no peer that you can use in its place! Sometimes they can hold important foreshadowing! The antediluvian thing I mentioned earlier, I thought that it might have been brought up specifically because of a recent example in Homestuck.

      In Homestuck, one character refers to the word "gay" as an "antediluvian" term. And the response from the person he was talking to was basically, "antedi-what?"

      And then after several months of new comics, it's revealed that both characters live 400 years in the future after a great catastrophe flooded the earth. The fandom promptly shit an entire fortress made of bricks and uranium.

      I do agree, however, that obscure words need to be used sparingly and only when necessary.

      Speaking from personal experience, I had to explain magical proprioception, and I don't think I could adequately explain the concept if I had to call it something like, "that thingy that you use to make sure you don't hit yourself and bump into things all the time, or at least only when you want to".

  11. I'm just glad that RAinbow Dash hasn't been shipped with Katara yet.

  12. There's a reason why I locked the dictionary app on my Mac's dock so I could access it easier and this article sums up a good deal why I did so. Now, I'd be lying if I haven't used obscure words before in my writing ('maleficium' being the rarest word, I can think of), but most of the time I just use what I know. Sadly, that's less than it should be on my end.

    *"those stories [Lord of the Rings fanficts] 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."*

    To be fair, Tolkien's own writing style somewhat encourages this.

    Speaking of Lord of the Rings, the only non-MLP fanfict I like comes from that fandom.

    You might like it, if you like parodies of writing guides and can accept that Tolkien's writing had flaws that are worth laughing at.

  13. It's always fun to see that a post of mine has generated this kind of discussion. Though apparently I'd be well advised not to muse out loud about crack parings. Eh, lesson learned.

    And I've read "So You Want to Write a Tolkien Fanfic." It's hilarious, because as much as I love Tolkien, it's pretty much spot-on.

  14. Whenever I read, I hope to learn something. If that thing is a new word, so much the better, but it's sad that such a thing would actually discourage a reader, provided it doesn't happen every other sentence. And where does one draw the line? I've had reviewers complain about what I felt were fairly ordinary words. It's all relative. In the end, you have to be satisfied with your own product. You'll go crazy chasing your tail trying to suit an audience that's too indistinct to define. And Sessalisk makes a good point. If a single word contains a shade of meaning that would take an entire sentence to explain thoroughly, then it is the preferable choice.

    Great topic, Chris. This has come up on Ponychan more than once.

  15. While it always puts a smile on my face when a reviewer or writer of a fanfiction guide produces something with real educational value, essays on the use of the thesaurus irk me. Why? Because the guides I’ve encountered over the years always recall the exact lessons taught to me in grade and high school Language Arts. Because of this, I find it baffling when I hear of any writer over the age of 14 first learning how to use a dictionary and thesaurus in tandem only after a reviewer or critic has directed them to do so. Did they drop these basics from school curricula since the 80’s? Is this really a shortcoming of the modern education system or just the narrow perception of an aging amateur writer? (Uphill! Both ways! Through six feet of snow!) For you younger folks out there, would you be so kind as to help satisfy my curiosity and let me know if the practice is being actively taught nowadays?

    1. I can categorically state that virtually nothing I have learned since deciding to have a genuine crack at writing, was covered when I was at school (which I left in '92).

      Yes. That disturbs me. No, none of it was hard to learn 2nd time around, because I actually cared. Then again, no, I have no idea if I'm any good yet...LOL


    2. I've asked a few local elementary and high-school English teachers since you posted this question, and it appears that (in our district, at least) reference use is no longer part of the curriculum. When I was in school, use of dictionaries, thesauruses, and encyclopedias was primarily covered in 4th grade, but this appears to no longer be the case.

      One of the teachers I asked blamed this on the increased pressure to teach "testable" skills, like reading comprehension and retention. While it seems a likely culprit to me, I have only her word to go on. But the short answer is: no, kids these days (at least in my local district) are not being taught any of this in school.

    3. Inasmuch as your replies confirm my suspicions, I'll just state the info's disheartening (for the sake of keeping the language clean), and spare the world a massive rant. Still, I can't help but feel that any student who isn't given at least some instruction in reference is being cheated out of something of great value.

      Admittedly, my grade school experience with the dictionary and thesaurus was easily dismissed as boring and useless (as so many lessons are by headstrong youths), but in my freshman year of high school, I had a teacher who used a simple exercise to demonstrate just how dynamic the English language can be. This may not be the exact way it went, but it’s as close as my memory allows.

      First, he wrote a sentence on the board and underlined the verb:
      Jeff sauntered down to the store for a carton of milk and a dozen eggs.

      Next, he had the class look up the definition of the word “saunter,” and polled us for a supporting sentence to help the use of that particular word make sense. We came up with something like:
      Jeff sauntered down to the store for a carton of milk and a dozen eggs. His mother said she wanted to bake a cake that afternoon, so he had plenty of time to pick them up.

      Satisfied with the results, he had us crack open our thesauruses and try substituting different synonyms for “saunter” to see if they’d fit.
      Jeff walked down . . .: Sort of worked, but didn’t convey the leisurely pace as well.
      Jeff strolled down . . .: We decided it was just as good as “sauntered.”
      Jeff meandered down . . .: This one was the kicker. The teacher had us look this word up, and once we’d all been directed to our dictionaries, an argument started on whether or not it made a good substitute.

      When the debate started getting heated, he directed us to try and reword the sentences so “meandered” made more sense. The 44-year-old me is convinced the end result was:
      Jeff meandered on his way to the store for a carton of milk and a dozen eggs. His mother said she wanted to bake a cake that afternoon, so he had plenty of time to goof off before picking them up.

      When all was said and done, he concluded the lesson with, “You all see how words can be similar but not exact, and how substitutions can change the whole meaning of a sentence?”

      Yes. We got it. It clicked. So deceptively simple, it didn’t even take a whole period to get the message across, but I’ve always remembered the gist of that lesson.

      Don’t get me wrong. . . . I have personally committed every writer’s “sin” ever ranted about, and—having a number of very old and hard-set bad habits which require active concentration to break—will most likely commit even more, depending on the level of editing I do before releasing something to the public (see the 1st 5 parts of LGT vs. the 6th if you’re hunting for examples). However, I don’t have the luxury of excuses when problems are called out because I’ve had lessons like this one, and because of them actually do know better. (I just happen to ignore them when I’m being a lazy schmuck.)

      Regardless, the question I now have is: if reading comprehension and retention is a goal, how could a lesson like this one not be considered? Chris, since you’ve gone above and beyond the call by reaching out to local teachers, perhaps you might kick this anecdote in their direction and see what thoughts they may have on it? No obligation implied . . . I’m just curious about what they might say.