I’m also not much for taking things out of context. Like this.
Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. — Stephen King
A lot of writers treat King’s advice on writing like a bible and, like a lot of Bible carriers, they often take things over-literally and take quotes completely out of context.
This is an example of both.
Is it true? Is any word you have to look up in a thesaurus the wrong word? Of course not.
However, this quote is from 1988, and a healthy, 40-something Stephen King may have had a sharper mind than a 66-year-old man who nearly died after being hit by a van. For my own part, I know that I sometimes have to search for a word–I know the word; I just can’t remember it right now. A thesaurus will aid my sometimes bemused mind in recalling that word.
And if it were true, are there really no exceptions to the rule? Of course not.
Just like there’s no crying in baseball, there are no hard and fast rules in creative activity. That’s why it has the word “creative” in it. We break rules. We try new things. Often, we fail, but we try them out to see.
King wrote the statement in the ’80s in his essay “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes.” The statement was included in the section entitled “Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft.” Yes, first draft. In reading the entire quote (included below), it is clear that he means that looking things up in encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauruses will only get in the way. When writing the first draft, don’t stop to look up a word. Use the word or spelling you have and look it up later. If you are at a loss for a fact, put in a placeholder (like I describe in this post). But don’t stop writing, don’t lose that momentum. Keep going. Keep writing that first draft!
King’s especial dislike of the thesaurus is patent, and with cause. The thesaurus has been the Devil’s handmaiden in the creation of uncounted literary abominations. Thesauruses lead to overblown prose, sentences bloated with tumid phrases, and plain old errors.
Once, in a group slush-reading for a magazine, we came across the sentence, “It had a caste smell.” We read it aloud and scratched our heads at it a bit until it dawned on us. The author had used the thesaurus. He wanted a synonym for rank (“It had a rank smell.”), found synonyms for rank, but not for rank=stinky…he got the synonyms for rank=echelon. Rank = echelon = caste. Thus, “It had a caste smell.”
Hilarity ensued. Okay, you had to be there.
The thesaurus is a tool that can help a faulty memory remember one of the thousands of words we have in our heads. It should not be used to find a word we don’t already know, and only rarely (if ever) to find a word that’s just…better. But using it while writing the first draft is counter-productive.
King was not speaking literally about thesauruses. He was using hyperbole to make his point. Don’t let the thesaurus (or any reference work) stop you during your first draft. Don’t do it. Don’t.
The Whole Quote
5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft
You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels by around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. You think you might have misspelled a word? O.K., so here is your choice: either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right – and breaking your train of thought and the writer’s trance in the bargain – or just spell it phonetically and correct it later. Why not? Did you think it was going to go somewhere? And if you need to know the largest city in Brazil and you find you don’t have it in your head, why not write in Miami, or Cleveland? You can check it … but later. When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.
–from The Writer’s Handbook, Sylvia K. Burack, ed., Writer, Inc., 1988