LESSON When That Word Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

Discussion in 'REFINING WRITING' started by Revision, Jul 11, 2012.

  1. When That Word Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means: Abusing the Thesaurus in the Quest for Originality

    One of a writer's most useful tools is the thesaurus. It allows us to add spice to our posts and stories, to create stunning imaginative vistas, and to add new complexity to our writing that was lacking, not to mention let us sound a bit more poetic. However, this is not why many people use the thesaurus. Instead of using it for noble reasons, they use it to make their posts sound unique and different. People wish to stand out, and thus they use alternate words. These aren't always based from a thesaurus. Sometimes, they are odd substitutions or kennings. A large number, however, are due to direct thesaurus abuse.

    Now, before you rant at me about how I am trying to stifle your creativity, I wish to make it perfectly clear that I have no objections to using alternate wording or even a bit of creative phrasing. However, when you try to hard, one of a few things happens.

    1) Your post is unreadable. The average person only knows less than a tenth of the words in the English language and relies greatly on context to figure out those she doesn't know. When every other word is new or a strange or creative usage, this can confuse people and interrupt their immersion as they have to repeatedly open the dictionary. This is even worse on a site that has several people to whom English is only a second language.
    2) You get the meanings completely wrong. One of the worst mistakes many thesaurus advocates make is not checking the definition of a word once they decide upon it. It is simple enough to go from word to word to word until you find one you like, but by then, chances are that the meaning has completely changed. This is especially true since not all words are related in the manner you are trying to relate them. Trying to use the word "post" instead of "stake" in a vampire story comes out sounding rather silly.
    3) The flow is compromised. The story or post becomes stuttering and hard to read due to complex or bizarre turns of phrase.
    4) A serious post becomes just plain silly. This is especially true when a word ends up completely misused or when a newly invented turn of phrase beckons forth utterly hilarious mental images. It is difficult to remain immersed when this happens and it often causes your post to be laughed at when you are sincerely trying for a serious atmosphere.

    So now that you know what is going to happen, here is how to avoid it.

    1) Use alternate wording moderately and extremely odd phrasing and wording very sparingly. Know when what you are using is profession specific jargon that most won't understand and be ready to give good context in relatively simple terms. This doesn't mean define everything, but it is the difference between "Felis Catus is your taxonomic nomenclature" and "The cat, whose taxonomy classifies it as a mammal". While the former is lovely, the latter is easier to decipher for the non-biologists in the group.
    2) Look up the definition of the words you settle upon, especially if they are new to you. The more steps you take to locate your word of choice, the more essential this becomes.
    3) Reread your story aloud. If you find yourself stumbling heavily or feel a lack of flow, you may need to rewrite.
    4) Visualize your turns of phrase. Reread your story as if reading it for the first time. If something seems utterly silly, there is nothing wrong with occasionally falling back on a cliche. "It is better to have loved and lost" may be an old classic, but it still fits better than "She felt that losing him was like a horse kicked down the door to her heart's barn." When in down, spin the classic a bit. "Loss hurts, but the experiences were worth the pain."

    Just doing those four things will drastically improve the readability of your posts and writing. Give it a try! Don't be afraid of synonyms, just be sure you are using them correctly and conservatively.
     
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