In his non-fiction work, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King has much to say about the art of writing – a lot I agree with, some I do not. One of the things he touts is “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
Like a painter, a writer must have the right tools to create. The ideas are there…in their splendid variations and faces. I think the purpose of both artist and author is to put those ideas in a form that can be communicated to others – so that the viewer/reader “sees” what the creator sees.
Whereas a painter has brushes, paints, easels, palette knives, canvases, turpentine, and any number of other devices in his tackle box, a writer has keyboards, dictionaries, grammar guides, software applications like Word, Spell Check…and a thesaurus.
For me, words are like the colors with which I paint my stories. Just as a painter works best when she has a full array of pigments from which to choose, I want choices too…and the greater the choices, the more likely I will find the word best suited for the sentence (the paragraph, the piece as a whole). I want the right word – as no other will do.
Just as a visual artist is not likely to choose a bright yellow in the forefront of a Gothic painting, I don’t want a word that doesn’t fit with the tenor of the chapter I’ve written or the character I have speaking. I’m not going to have an uneducated man use the word “erudite” – but I may have him say “learned” – one of the more likely options listed in the thesaurus.
I do agree to what is perhaps the real point of Mr. King’s statement: a writer cannot blindly choose a synonym simply because it is one of the choices. In the example above, I might have chosen “scholarly” or “intellectual.” But those didn’t sound right in my character’s mouth, either – so I didn’t use them. Similarly, a painter may dab his canvas with purple, only to find that doesn’t present the effect he wants. A little turpentine and a swipe will take care of that, leaving the canvas ready for another try. My turpentine is the “cut” function. Same thing.
A thesaurus offers a broader palette from which the effective word may be chosen – or rejected, if necessary. Even if none of the given alternatives is quite right, the synonyms for one of the choices may come closer to the meaning the author wishes to convey. The challenge is to hunt for that perfect word.
My thesaurus lists the synonyms for “famous” as: well-known, celebrated, renowned, legendary. The synonyms for “legendary” add “illustrious” and “great” to the mix. Perhaps any one of those words could have been used to describe a man like Jay Gatsby – but they weren’t. None of those other words quite has the all-encompassing meaning, to say nothing of the alliterative appeal, of “great.” Maybe Fitzgerald knew this all along – but perhaps there was a moment when the right word was not at his beckoning…and a thesaurus might have helped.