Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Avoiding Thesaurus Abuse

In one episode of M*A*S*H, Radar, the company clerk, has decided to improve himself by becoming a writer. He signs up for a highly questionable writing course by mail and proceeds to try his hand at writing. When he starts to attempt to exercise his new vocabulary he met with disastrous results. He offends someone by saying "provocative anecdote." In his daily reports he writes that Corporal Klinger was going about his crepuscular rounds. Later Klinger took off with a nifty nonchalance, only to return with his "nonchalantness" not so nifty. Colonel Potter advised Radar to write what he knows. Always good advice -- well, sort of.

What was really at issue here was not so much writing what you know, but writing as yourself. People just don't use words like "crepuscular" in ordinary conversation. Guys like Radar do not discuss provocative anecdotes. There are times when you might use such verbiage, such as when you are writing a television script about a simple guy trying too hard to not be quite so simple. But for the most part you don't want to go there.

Writing the way you speak is far more accessible to your audience. That is unless people tend to nod off whenever you open your mouth.  The way you speak is contemporary and designed to communicate thoughts and ideas easily to the listener. You may need to change the contemporary part somewhat for historical pieces, but you don't want to vary too far off modern speech or you may lose your audience.

Putting distracting words into your work detracts from it. Did anyone hesitate, even briefly at my use of verbiage above? You should have. I could have just used "words" and done just as well. Anything that stops your reader in the flow of the story is a bit of bad writing. You want the reader to stay totally engaged. I used to love reading Judith Krantz novels, for which she was paid many millions of dollars. The one thing about her writing that drove me absolutely nuts was her insistence on placing smatterings of French into her dialog. Without translating it or alluding to the meaning somewhere nearby. This always pulled me out of the story since I don't speak French much beyond "oui," "non," and "merci." I can usually manage better with German and Spanish, but, not being fluent, I still have to stop and translate.

It can be difficult to find just the right word, and a thesaurus is a great tool to have handy for any writer. The problem is giving into the temptation to indulge in flashy language. It is so easy to want to make yourself smart. That alternate word may seem so cool. You can find yourself going to the thesaurus more and more often to keep it up. This is thesaurus abuse.

When I wrote for the Colorado Daily I was limited on the size of my articles by character count, not by word count, since the articles had to fit into a certain amount of space. I would write my article, check the character count, and then go over my work with a fine tooth comb to carve down the number of characters without losing the meaning of the story. The fancier words had to go, for they tended to be much longer. Anecdote has eight characters where story is only five. It was one of many ways that writing for print news helped sharpen my writing skills immeasurably. To save characters I would also end up rearranging sentences to make them more compact.

Don't write a provocative anecdote, write a great story. If people have too much trouble understanding you, they aren't going to bother reading your work. Save the flowery language for that one particular character that no one is supposed to understand -- the pompous scientist, for example. You don't want the best of your work to get lost in translation.

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