Martin Amis uses a thesaurus. The British novelist and critic is known as kind of a snob, and the thesaurus is known as a dangerous tool abused by amateur writers trying to sound smart, but as you’ve probably guessed, Amis uses his thesaurus very differently than a college freshman. In the Big Think video […] (via Open Culture), he describes a better way to use a thesaurus. […]
Amis uses a thesaurus to match the style and rhythm of his words. He might find his current word too long or short for the sentence it’s in. Or he might want to avoid an awkward rhyme or alliteration. He points to Vladimir Nabokov, who changed the English title of his novel Invitation to an Execution to Invitation to a Beheading. Say both out loud and you’ll hear the improvement.
He also double-checks his word use by looking up words in the dictionary—not necessarily to check their definitions, but to check their etymology. For example, he says, the lapid in dilapidated comes from the Latin word for stone, so while he might refer to a dilapidated house, he wouldn’t refer to a dilapidated hedge.
You don’t have to be as careful as Amis with your word choice.
You should be as careful as Amis. I try to be:
if you truly want to write better, pay more attention to the rhythm of your words, and study their usage and etymology. Your thesaurus and dictionary are one right-click away—use them well.
Check out my Tools page for a listing of mostly free resources for writing, presentation tools, and tips.