Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I like to use the thesaurus, but my critique group says I should put it away. Isn't the point of creative writing to find the perfect word?

Indeed, good writers continually search for le mot juste, the most precise word or expression. A thesaurus can be helpful in this quest. I often find one entry leads me to another, which has me flipping pages to a third—all in an effort to find the word that has just the right sound and connotation. Our words carry baggage, after all. Modest and mousy, for example, have a similar dictionary definition, but their connotations—the emotional associations with the words—are quite different. The librarian who hides in the stacks when the library gets busy might be mousy, while the artist who downplays her recent award and focuses on her next project might be modest.

But be careful. Some writers are led astray during this search. Avoid the temptation to use words simply to display your smarts. No one wants to read through a tangle of fancy words:

The day after the salacious rumor permeated the office, Amber awoke and traversed the miniscule park opposite her house.
Even if you don't need to reach for the dictionary to decode, it sounds awkward. Evocative words can be exciting, but remember that they need to serve a purpose.

Know your options and choose wisely, No one word will be right for every situation. Take voice into consideration, as well as context. An employee appreciation event put on by a struggling non-profit with no extra money won't be a “soiree," no matter how much you like the word. But it could be a “get-together" or a “reception." A party at a barn might be a “celebration," but if it's lively with a bluegrass band and dancing, it might just be a “shindig."

Finding that perfect word is a quest worth undertaking. It can mean the difference between a so-so sentence and one that settles in the reader's gut.