In my line of work (or, the line of work I’d like to be in), I tend to look at a whole lot of words. After a certain amount of time, you start to get used to them. Individually. There’s a reason that writers tend to compare words to tools. After a while, the advice starts to seem rather trite, even. “A word is like a tool. You wouldn’t use a hammer when you need a screwdriver”. Well, obviously. Even a passingly familiar writer wouldn’t use ‘sizeable’ when ‘humongous’ is a much better word for the situation, or vice versa. That sort of distinction seems obvious.
Nevertheless, it’s also a very common complaint about new or inexperienced (or, perhaps, inept) writers that they use words that mean almost, but not quite, what they think it does. It’s called ‘thesaurus syndrome’ by some (or perhaps just by me). It’s when you get the idea that the writer has looked for a ‘better’ or ‘more interesting’ word and pulled out the thesaurus.
Don’t get me wrong; I love my thesaurus. I keep it close by my desk. I use it when I can’t think of a specific word; only one very close to it.
As I’m not a fan of giving advice without expanding on it (occasionally to the chagrin of the people I explain at), I have a couple of notes that, I think, need to be made a lot clearer when people talk about word choice.
Words have meanings, frequently quite specific ones
Sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it?
But far be it from me to fail to overcomplicate something, so here we go. ‘sizeable’ and ‘humongous’ might be a fairly obvious example of two words that have basically the same meaning, but with some important differences. Sizeable is much more formal, and doesn’t convey the same scale of size.
But the part that a lot of people might miss is the aspect of comparison in ‘sizeable’. A ‘sizeable man’ is large compared to other men. A ‘sizeable book’ is large by the standards of books.
A humongous man might be a giant – a truly humongous man, as tall as a building. But referring to a giant as a sizeable man seems inadequate.
This is why thesaurii are so inaccurate – I can get a word that a book will tell me is very similar to the one that I thought of, but it won’t tell me exactly how it differs.
The exact word is the best vs. The simple word is the best.
These are two pieces of advice that get bandied about in equal measure. The second one often gives me a bit of grief, since it always seems to be demonstrated with nouns. “Why use a more complicated description when ‘knife’ will do just fine?”
If nouns were what gave writers the most grief, the practice of writing would be a distressingly simple one.
These often come into conflict when it’s abstract concepts, verbs, adjectives that are giving the writer problems. The word ‘likeable’ is simpler, but the word ‘amicable’ is closer to what the author meant.
In this case, the choice is obviously simple – ‘amicable’ is still well-known enough that it’s not going to cause a problem. Because that’s the real issue here. The problem is not when a reader is given a slightly more complex word; it’s when the reader is given a word that they don’t know.
Here’s where I open another entire kettle of fish, and I think I ought to revisit this one later in its own blog post; to paraphrase, my opinion is that a reader won’t necessarily be turned off by being forced to learn new words. It’s when the author doesn’t seem to know what they’re doing using them that it becomes a problem.
Basically, I think the solution to this one is not about following a rule, it’s about asking a question. Two questions, actually: first, “does this mean exactly what I think it means?” and “does this word suit the tone of my writing?”
Suiting the tone, I find, is far more important than having a ‘simple’ or ‘complex’ word. Suit the word to the person saying it, or the tone of the narrative before you ask if it’s too complicated. Even do that before you ask if the word is precisely right, on some occasions. Dialogue in particular, but narrative also – it’s most important to keep the reader in the experience of the book. Nine times out of ten, you can accomplish that by using the correct word in the correct tone. But sometimes it means using a word that’s not quite right, and that’s OK; that’s what it means.
In the end, it comes down to examining word choice, building an ear for words. If they’re right, you’ll know, and you’ll be able to tell. IF they’re not, you’ll know that, too. It’s frustrating, looking for that one damned word, but it’s better than never knowing there’s something wrong in the first place. The more one writes, reads, is exposed to words in their natural habitat, the more of a feel one gets for the precise meaning of words.
The day someone asks what the difference is between words X and Y, and you’re reduced to standing there, waving your hands at them, because you know the difference, but can’t express it is the day you know you’re getting close.