Martin Amis Explains How to Use a Thesaurus to Actually Improve Your Writing

Among all nov­el­ists cur­rent­ly work­ing in the Eng­lish lan­guage, how many pay the atten­tion to style Mar­tin Amis does? And among all nov­el­ists who have ever worked in the Eng­lish lan­guage, how many pay the atten­tion to style Vladimir Nabokov did? No won­der that the for­mer yields to none in his appre­ci­a­tion for the lat­ter. “Amis has always want­ed to see Nabokov as some­one resem­bling his own crit­i­cal self — essen­tial­ly, a ‘cel­e­bra­tor,’ a man whose dark­ness and sever­i­ties have been over­stat­ed,” write The New York­er’s Thomas Mal­lon. Amis has explic­it­ly tak­en note of “Nabokov’s dis­dain for sym­pa­thet­ic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with fic­tion­al char­ac­ters, and also of his belief that artis­tic effect was every­thing, the descrip­tor more impor­tant than the described.”

Nabokov’s dec­la­ra­tion that “for me, ‘style’ is mat­ter,” Mal­lon writes, “remains almost fear­ful­ly thrilling to Amis.” And it is with one of Nabokov’s prin­ci­ples on style that Amis begins in the Big Think video above. “There is only one school of writ­ing,” he quotes Nabokov as writ­ing. “That of tal­ent.” You can’t teach tal­ent, of course, “but what you can do is instill cer­tain prin­ci­ples,” one of them being “the impor­tance of ugly rep­e­ti­tion.” But then, “rep­e­ti­tion has its uses, and any­thing is bet­ter than try­ing to avoid rep­e­ti­tion through what they call ‘ele­gant vari­a­tion’ ” — the use, which Amis dis­miss­es as point­less, of “using a dif­fer­ent word when there’s no change in mean­ing.”

Most of us com­mit ele­gant vari­a­tion with the­saurus in hand; hence, it would seem, that par­tic­u­lar ref­er­ence book’s rep­u­ta­tion as the tool of sec­ond-class writ­ers and worse. But Amis him­self uses the the­saurus, and heav­i­ly, as a means of “avoid­ing rep­e­ti­tion of pre­fix­es and suf­fix­es” — he cites Nabokov’s chang­ing the title of Invi­ta­tion to an Exe­cu­tion to Invi­ta­tion to a Behead­ing — “as well as rhymes and half-rhymes, unin­ten­tion­al allit­er­a­tion, et cetera.” Peo­ple assume “the­saurus­es are there so you can look up a fan­cy word for ‘big,’ ” when in fact they serve their true pur­pose when you come to a point in a sen­tence “where you’re unhap­py with the word you’ve cho­sen not because of its mean­ing, but because of its rhythm. You may want a mono­syl­la­ble for this con­cept, or you may want a tri­syl­la­ble.”

A writer like Amis, or indeed Nabokov (who learned Eng­lish after his native Russ­ian), will also “make sure they’re not vis­it­ing an indeco­rum on the word’s deriva­tion.” This requires noth­ing more than the hum­ble dic­tio­nary, to check, for exam­ple, whether dilap­i­dat­ed can describe a hedge as well as a build­ing. (It can’t, and Amis explains why.) “When you look up a word in the dic­tio­nary, you own it in a way you did­n’t before,” says Amis, who esti­mates that he does it him­self a dozen times a day. “It’s very labor-inten­sive. It takes a long time, some­times, to get your sen­tence right rhyth­mi­cal­ly, and to clear the main words in it from mis­use. And all you’re win­ning is the respect of oth­er seri­ous writ­ers. But I think any amount of effort is worth it for that.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Vladimir Nabokov Taught Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg, His Most Famous Stu­dent, To Care Deeply About Writ­ing

Vladimir Nabokov Names the Great­est (and Most Over­rat­ed) Nov­els of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Nor­man Mail­er & Mar­tin Amis, No Strangers to Con­tro­ver­sy, Talk in 1991

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

V.S. Naipaul Cre­ates a List of 7 Rules for Begin­ning Writ­ers

Nietzsche’s 10 Rules for Writ­ing with Style (1882)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Timo says:

    The Web­ster’s dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion states that the root ‘lapis’ relat­ing to stone in ‘dilap­i­dat­ed’ comes from the idea of being pelt­ed with stones, not being made of stone. So in that sense a hedge could be dilap­i­dat­ed.

    More impor­tant­ly, how peo­ple use lan­guage changes all the time, so look­ing at the orig­i­nal root is not always the best way for­ward (see ‘dec­i­mat­ed’ for exam­ple, which Kurt Von­negut insist­ed has to mean reduced by one tenth, but that is not how the word is used today).

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