Vocabulary and Voice

old bookThe more I write, and the more I study writing, the more I hear a simple debate about the merits of vocabulary and how it contributes to voice. As a beginning writer, I always had a thesaurus at my side, or I at least had dictionary.com’s version of it open in a browser window. I hunted for beautiful words that would elevate my diction and the level of my prose, convinced that this simple step would land my stories among the pages of college classrooms the world over.

Then, I read what Stephen King had to say about the issue.

Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

So, after my initial prideful disagreement with one of the best selling authors in American history (if not the best), I decided that he may just have some sort of insight into the matter. He’d only been writing longer than I’d been alive.

But why is this the case? The idea is that you already have all the words you need. If you have to stretch for a word, it’s probably the wrong word. It won’t match the voice of the narrator, and it will call too much attention to itself and will pull the reader out of the story and remind them that they are reading, not experiencing.

I think, to some extent, when you consult the thesaurus, it’s indicative of one of a few things. Either your vocabulary is not expansive enough (in which case, read more—that’s what King recommends anyway), or you’re insecure in your ability to craft a story in well-worded prose, or you’re simply trying to show off in hopes of wallowing in the unbidden laud of several million critics (note—I did not have to look up “laud.” It’s already in my vocabulary’s arsenal. Aren’t I brilliant?").

For me, it was a combination of all three. But the more I read, the more confidence I gain, the less I seek the unbidden laud of critics, the more I relax and craft stories that are experiences rather than dry texts.

So, go ahead and close the thesaurus, or that browser tab next to this one that has Dictionary.com bookmarked. Open a novel instead, and enjoy the process of increasing your vocabulary.

QUICK NOTE: No blog next week, as I’ll be leading a few classes at Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Hope to see you there!

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