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Monday, August 27, 2018

How to use the Thesaurus Properly

Some authors say to never use a thesaurus. But guess what? I use one all the time--every week, often every day. Sometimes it's when I'm editing others' manuscripts but always when I'm writing fiction, and on occasion even for my blog posts.

Why do some authors say that?

Because a lot of people in the world use the thesaurus wrong.

At least when it comes to actual writing.

The other day I was gassing up my car while the screen on the Chevron pump advertised to me. One of the features they have at these Chevron pumps is a "Word of the Day" feature--one of my pet peeves that I love to hate. You may have heard me complain about them on here. The "Word of the Day" feature is practically useless.


Because they almost always highlight words that are useless. They're so rare, so specific, or so convoluted that they actually have no real life (or real writing) value.

Take one I'm looking at on a website right now.


Have you ever heard of that word?

I haven't. And I spend A LOT of time with words.

So I click on it.

First thing I notice, this is actually an informal Australian word. That's what it says, right on the page.

So if you are one of my international followers (love you guys ;) you may have heard of this word. But for us here in the U.S. the word is essentially useless to know (unless of course we are working on something that relates to Australia)

If I use it in one of my stories, it'd be like me writing "trainers" instead of "sneakers" when the rest of my story is written in American English. It doesn't work. It doesn't make sense.

Okay, so let's see what the word actually means.

to peer at quickly and closely

Great. (If you are Australian.) But instead of using a word that most of my audience (which is in the U.S.) has never heard of before, why not just use these: scan, notice, consider, study, scrutinize, glance, inspect . . . or peer itself.

Sure, they don't mean the exact same thing, but if needed, I can always add an adverb to capture it.

Angelica quickly inspected the advertisement.

Boom. Done. Now my target audience knows what's going on.

See, a lot of people approach the thesaurus completely wrong: They use it to find rarer and more convoluted words, because they think it makes them sound smarter and like they are an amazingly educated writer. (For the record, I'm convinced this is a normal phase that writers go through when learning to write.)

But writing is a collaboration between the writer and reader. If the author is literally writing for themselves--even into the details--then the story isn't as powerful. This is especially true when handling emotion in your story. Writers writing for themselves will try to write how they feel about that scene to render emotion, but more experienced writers know you need to instead focus on writing what will actually elicit those feelings in the audience.

Here is how NOT to use a thesaurus:

Tiffy is writing a novel.

Tiffy decides to use the thesaurus to come up with "a better word."

Tiffy replaces the phrase "facial expression" with "physiognomy."

And "breakfast" with "jentacular"


This puts the audience at a distance and disadvantage. And it does more than that. It changes the pacing and tone of the passage--and probably in ways you don't want. 

Here is how to use a thesaurus properly:

Max is writing a short story.

Max could use the word "looked,"  but it's a little vague and doesn't capture the moment as accurately.

Max decides to use the thesaurus to find a more accurate word the reader is familiar with and that will convey more than "looked" does.

Max replaces "looked" with "scrutinized."

Way to go Max!

When and How to use the Thesaurus

1. Use the thesaurus when you can't remember or come up with the EXACT word you are looking for.

Hmmmm something like "dance" but more happy . . . --> Prance

2. Use the thesaurus when you are looking for a word that carries a more accurate, more powerful, or more telling connotation or definition. (This can be important in voice, tone, style, humor, subtext, undercurrents, and evoking emotion.)

Fat --> Plump

3. Use the thesaurus to find stronger verbs or to replace an adverb + verb combination (as long as the results aren't unfamiliar to the reader)

Pulled hard --> Yanked 

4. Use the thesaurus to find a shorter, simpler, or more common word when you need to speed up pacing

Galloped --> Ran

5. Use the thesaurus to avoid awkward repetition of the same word.

He looked over and into the look on her face. --> He looked over and into her expression.

6. Use the thesaurus to find the right word for the beat or rhythm. 

[The yellow fog] Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and . . . ?


[The yellow fog] Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

Different Synonym = Different Meaning

When you run across words that seem to mean the same thing, look up the dictionary definition of each and see how they are different if you don't know. This will help keep the integrity of what you are trying to convey and allow you to write with more precision. Most synonyms are different in some way--which is why they're different words. 

For example, "twilight" is a synonym for "sunset," but they don't actually mean the exact same thing. 

"Sunset" is when the sun is setting. "Twilight" is when the sun has just set

Other times the differences aren't dictionary related, but in their connotations.

"Stubborn" carries different emotional impact than "steadfast," even though their dictionary definitions may be the same. Which conveys the connotation you want? "Stubborn" is often used negatively. "Steadfast" is more positive.

When you first start really trying to write with precision, it can feel like a nightmare. I remember back in college sitting down on a short story assignment and deciding I was really going to pick precise, strong words like my professor talked about. 

It was so hard. 

In fact, for a while, I thought this would be how I always felt writing. 

But it passed and I'm far better off. (And have been using the thesaurus ever since that assignment.)

Wait, some of you might be saying, then doesn't that excuse some of the blunders--because I'm writing so specifically when I say "squiz"???

Like all writing "rules" there is a give and take. "Galloped" is more specific than "ran," however, if pacing is a bigger priority than specificity in that moment, then you sure better go with "ran." 

This was also something I struggled with a bit in college when I took my poetry class, after I'd committed to using precise language. I'd pick the exact right word. I remember in my first critique my professor said she wanted me to pay more attention to sound, beat, and rhythm (I mean, I guess those are sorta important in poetry ;) So sometimes those had to be prioritized over specificity. You might have to compromise in some places. 

Wait, then what's the point in learning all this if it's not set in stone? you might ask. 

Because you can't learn and understand when to do what and how x makes y more powerful until you understand and follow the guidelines.

Now go forth and use the thesaurus properly! (At least when you need it.)


  1. and sometimes you will hear in New Zealand.... Giz a squiz. Which means Can I have a look at that thing you are looking at....
    Ahhh language... always interesting.

    1. Giz a squiz? haha, I love that one! Sorry for the late reply btw--for some reason I haven't been getting notified about all my comments! I've changed the settings now to see if it helps. ^_^


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