Writers who write on writing love to quote the line where Stephen King advises them to throw away their thesaurus, King’s theory being that ‘any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word’. Well, you would have to prise my thesaurus from my hands with pliers! And I don’t mean the kind of synonym bible that’s a click away. I mean my 1952 edition of the J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases.
No doubt Stephen King is being quoted out of context. In the passage, he speaks about writing a first draft, believing that using reference tools, such as a thesaurus, will interrupt a writer’s flow. His advice in his excellent book On Writing is based upon his personal experience as an experienced and successful writer of horror. He is also a man with an extensive vocabulary on the tip of his tongue. Not always so for the rest of us! Particularly not for me as I grow older.
I agree that using a thesaurus to find words you don’t know may prove dangerous, but I think most people use it to find the perfect word for the given context, or to save their editor from pointing out they have used the word ‘little’ three times on the same page.
I found my thesaurus, buried like treasure, in a tub of books at my local charity shop almost forty years ago. On the flyleaf it bears the inscription ‘Happy Christmas ’72 Craig with love from Jenny’. It is the 1969 reprint of the 1952 edition, clothbound in faded navy, with a threadbare spine and entries 61 to 72 scarred by old sticky tape. I doubt I could write a novel without it. I almost always know the words suggested, but without the aid of J.M. Dent & Sons, the perfect word might prove elusive. And being unable to find it would stifle my flow.
I love the way my traditional thesaurus is arranged by concept. Sometimes as I hunt down just the right word to express my thoughts, it takes me on a journey I never expected, leading me into a different way of thinking about my characters. Or another way of seeing my setting. A physical rather than virtual thesaurus can lead you down surprising paths. You may catch a glimpse of just the ‘write’ word in a neighbouring entry, or follow your nose to a new thought.
My Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases is a treasure trove, not merely of words, but ideas. So thank you Monsieur Roget and thank you Messieurs Dent for forty years of literary succour and serendipity.