Like a lot of writers, I’m fond of my thesaurus. I feel like I’m getting repetitive if I use the same words over and over again, so I start looking for new ways to convey what I want to say. There’s danger in this. Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, states the first word that comes to mind is usually the right choice. We’re striving for clarity and smooth reading, after all. Forcing yourself to make word choices that aren’t natural or intuitive can really bog down your writing.
I think a good example of this is a work by Ernest Vincent Wright. Now, I have to give credit where credit is due. Mr. Wright was obviously a man up to an enormous challenge, and I think he must have had a great sense of humor to boot. Back in the 1930s, he decided he was going to write an entire novel without ever using the letter “e”—the most frequent letter in the English language. Mr. Wright claimed he actually tied down the “e” key on his typewriter so he wouldn’t accidentally use it. I imagine he had to keep his thesaurus handy, since many of his first word choices were probably off limits. (Past tense also threw him for a loop—“walked” had to become “did walk,” etc. Nor could he use the words “he,” “she,” or “they.”) And Mr. Wright succeeded at this incredibly ambitious task, publishing Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter “E” in 1939. But did his story suffer from the limited word choice? You be the judge. Here are the opening paragraphs:
If Youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically, you wouldn't constantly run across folks today who claim that "a child don't know anything." A child's brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult's act, and figuring out its purport.
Up to about its primary school days a child thinks, naturally, only of play. But many a form of play contains disciplinary factor. "You can't do this," or "that puts you out," shows a child that it must think, practically, or fail. Now, if, throughout childhood, a brain has no opposition, it is plain that it will attain a position of "status quo," as with our ordinary animals. Man knows not why a cow, dog, or lion was not born with a brain on a par with ours; why such animals cannot add, subtract, or obtain from books and schooling, that paramount position which Man Holds today.
But a human brain is not in that class. Constantly throbbing and pulsating, it rapidly forms opinions; attaining an ability of its own; a fact which is startlingly shown by an occasional child "prodigy" in music or school work. And as, with our dumb animals, a child's inability convincingly to impart its thoughts to us, should not class it as ignorant.
Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl. It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary "fill-ins" as "romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road." Nor will it say anything about tinklings lulling distant folds; robins carolling at twilight, nor any "warm glow of lamplight" from a cabin window. No. It is an account of up-and-doing activity; a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today; and a practical discarding of that worn-out notion that "a child don't know anything."
If you’re interested in reading further, the entire novel can be read here. I’ll confess, I’ve never made it past chapter one.
What are your best tips when it comes to word choices?