Growing up, I associated Stephen King with clowns I wouldn’t want at my birthday party, hotels I wouldn’t want to visit on vacation and prom queens I wouldn’t want to take on a date. But it wasn’t until becoming a copywriter that I discovered King was as much a source of wisdom as he was a supplier of scares. His memoir, On Writing, is among the books I revisit often—particularly because of a quote that comes to mind every time I begin a new project, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
Go ahead, let that sink in.
I know I’m guilty. And whether you’re in the business of writing professionally or you keep to mostly texts and emails, it’s likely you’ve also mined a thesaurus in search of another way to say “beautiful.”
So what’s the big deal? Is it so wrong that we want to keep our writing from being bland, repetitive, uninspired? Not at all. But King isn’t making a case against variety. What he’s arguing for is authenticity. If “prepossessing” isn’t a word you’d normally say, maybe it isn’t a word that belongs in your writing.
This is especially true of the work we do for brands. At Smith Brothers, many of our clients make products you’d recognize from your last trip to the grocery store. Naturally, “delicious” is a term that would be easy to use in much of the work we do. The trouble is, competitive brands can describe their products the same way. Suddenly, everything is delicious.
Here’s where King’s claim starts to make more sense. Open the thesaurus to “delicious” and you’re met with a handful of awkward synonyms that call too much attention to themselves: toothsome, palatable, luscious, succulent. All are interesting words, but none have quite the same meaning as delicious. Thankfully, there are better ways to steer clear of overused language.
Take Heinz Ketchup, for instance. For decades, the brand has told us that the iconic condiment is “thick and rich.” And it works. The description is true, authentic and own-able. Most of all, it’s specific. Instead of simply telling us that the ketchup tastes good, Heinz tells us why it tastes good.
The lesson is an important one. It teaches us to drill down, dig deeper and seek out the characteristics that are unique to the products we’re writing about. Instead of scavenging for obscure words that make our readers pause for all the wrong reasons, we should be looking for the terms and descriptors that have that “thick and rich” quality. Words that are precisely right. Words without synonyms.
Because in the end, describing something we eat as “delicious” is no different than calling Disney World “fun.” We’re not actually saying anything. So let’s be better. The right words are out there. And while it’s certainly possible to find them in the thesaurus, I’ve found that spending time with the product leads to something far more memorable.