Friday, September 30, 2011
Tips for Writers: The Thesaurus Throwdown
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.