Hint to Writers: Use the Thesaurus with Caution

By Guest Author

This is a guest post by Jennifer Blanchard. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a huge fan of the thesaurus.

I’ve used it throughout my writing career—All the way from day one back when I was 12-years-old. In fact, the thesaurus is one of the main reasons I know so many words today.

When I wrote my first novel at age 13, I used my trusty thesaurus to change many of the “common” words I found myself using over and over again, such as “small” or “fun.” In high school journalism class, my thesaurus helped me find more articulate ways to say what I was thinking in an op-ed piece.

But when I got to college, I learned that my obsession with this popular writer’s tool was, in fact, a problem.

Typically when I sat down for a writing session, I would write without stopping until I was done. Then I’d go back and edit my piece for typos, misspellings, etc. Once I was finished with all that, I would grab my thesaurus and go through the piece I had just written, changing common words to words I thought were better and made me sound “smarter.” (See everyone! I know how to use big words!)

The day I turned in my first assignment to my college’s newspaper, however, is a day I’ll never forget.

When I wrote that article on the college getting new computers, I spent a couple hours interviewing the people in the computer help center, as well as getting opinions from students. Then I went back to my dorm room, sat down and went through my usual writing process—Write without stopping, go back and edit for errors, then use my best friend (aka: the thesaurus) to change some of the words.

I dropped the article off at the newspaper office and went on my merry way to have some lunch in the cafeteria. A little while after, I received a call from the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. He asked if I would come down to the office to talk to him.

Thinking he was going to tell me how impressed he was that a freshman could write so well and knew so many big words, I walked my ego down to the newspaper office. But when I sat down with the editor, his words weren’t exactly the ones I was expecting to hear.

The first thing he said to me was, “You’re a writer who likes the thesaurus, aren’t you?”

Turns out my obsession with using the thesaurus to make my writing “better” was a pretty bad idea.

Here are the life-changing lessons the editor imparted on me, and why you need to be very cautious when using the thesaurus:

  • Not all synonyms are created equal—The editor explained to me that just because the thesaurus says a word is a synonym for another word, doesn’t mean it’s the word’s exact counterpart. Some words, when replaced by a synonym, no longer mean the same thing.
  • Stop peppering your writing with “big words”—By using the thesaurus to change words I thought were “common,” I ended up sounding fake. And readers can always tell if a writer is being genuine or not.
  • Embrace your vocabulary as-is—One of my all-time favorite writing books is “On Writing,” by Stephen King. In the book, King says that wherever your vocabulary is at today is fine. There’s no need to learn more words or different words. Whatever words you know right now, you use. This will help you develop your voice and sound unique. Looking back, when I used words I didn’t really understand or know the meaning of, my writing suffered.

Although there are absolutely times when you need a thesaurus—to find a more descriptive way to say something, to see if you made the best possible word choice—you still want to make sure you always exercise caution, and say, “Do I really need this?” before you pull that reference book off your shelf.

Jennifer Blanchard is the founder of Procrastinating Writers. Be sure to also follow her on Twitter.

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17 Responses to “Hint to Writers: Use the Thesaurus with Caution”

  • Eric C

    Nice post. I’d slightly diasgree with the last piece of advice. We should strive to increase and better our vocabularies.

    If you read constantly, and challenge yourself to reader harder and harder stuff, your vocabularly should naturally get bigger. And there is nothing wrong with this.

  • Lily

    I mainly use the thesaurus when I’ve got a concept in mind, but I can’t *quite* put my finger on the right word. I can usually track down the word I’d been thinking of by putting in a concept close and following links from words that are even closer. Alternatively, when I find myself using the same word twice in a couple of paragraphs, I’ll usually have a go to see if I can rephrase with the help of a thesaurus.

    But certainly not just because I want some bigger words. And I always, *always* look up the word from the thesaurus in the dictionary to confirm its meaning–there’s subtleties in words, and even if they mean exactly the same thing, one candidate will usually have a connetation or double meaning that makes it even more appropriate.

  • John Samuel

    When I was in my college, I had the obsession of learning new words and their meaning. But later I shifted my focus to reading which not only improved my vocabulary and also helped me to see the words used in different contexts.

  • poch

    I’m a thesaurus fan too so this is a great tip for me Jennifer.
    Thanks a lot.

  • Philip Dragonetti

    Phil Dragonetti wrote:

    A Thesaurus is to be used only to transfer words from one’s passive vocabulary
    into one’s active vocabulary. One must first KNOW what the word means and its
    precise usage. How can ANYONE just pull a word from the Thesaurus without
    knowing exactly what its usage is??? One might as well start using Rumanian
    words in place of English words. 🙁

    Phil

  • Philip Dragonetti

    A second comment based on reading some of the posts:
    One should strive to use as simple a word as possible—but not simpler. Greatwriters do this.

    Posers try to sound impressive and use more complex words when a simpler one will do. That is the sign of a poser.

    Great musical composers also strive for simplicity. Compare a Mozart Piano concerto to one by Hummel or Mendelsohn—and you will hear immediately what I mean.

    When one writes, one should ask oneself “Am I a poser???”
    Phil

  • Hal Brown

    Like all things in life, I think a thesaurus should be used with moderation. I disagree with not doing all you can to improve your ‘writing’ vocabulary. The English language has more words than any other language on earth. Finding just the right shade of meaning is imperative for me; I don’t feel I’ve effectively communicated if I don’t find that word.

    Another reason to use a thesaurus, though less important, is to keep from repeating the same words in a sentence.

    Thanks for a good post.

  • Karen Marcus

    I like King’s advice, because it gives writers “permission” to start where they are.

  • Kimberly

    What a great post. I teach a course for first year college students, and one of my pet peeves is when students rely too heavily on the thesaurus with the mistaken belief that this will make them sound smarter. Sadly, Microsoft makes this too easy!

    At the same time, I find that I also rely on a thesaurus in my own writing. I like Phil’s distinction between passive and active vocabulary. However, I find that more often than not, when I pull a word from the thesaurus, it’s one that is already part of my active vocabulary. And given the time to think about my writing, I would come up with it on my own. The thesaurus, just a right-click away, is just a quick way to find a list of words. Of course I sort through for connotation and shade, but this habit is turning me into a lazy writer and, I fear, a lazy thinker.

    At least when I thumbed through a paper thesaurus, there was the adventure of losing myself in a seemingly endless web of words.

  • Precise Edit

    We see many usage problems from non-native English speakers who use a thesaurus but don’t understand word usage, connotations, etc.

    I’m reminded of what Stephen King said about using a thesaurus: “Any word you have to look up in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule” (or something like that).

  • marc nash

    I’d humbly like to disagree with a fair slice/slither/portion/chunk/segment of your post.

    I think your salutary tale of the newspaper editor frowning on big words reflects the craft of journalism, with its restrictions of column space and typesetting. It doesn’t follow that applies to literature.

    Also your point about synonyms not quite meaning the same thing as one another, is exactly where I derive their maximal value; language and particularly the English language is slippery and imprecise. Going back to the etymological root of a word may just assist you in nailing the exact meaning you are after; you can ask (from Anglo-Saxon) or you can demand (from Norman French). The difference may be significant depending on the context in which you seek to use the word in your writing.

    marc nash

  • Jon

    I see the key in Phil’s paraphrasing of Einstein: “One should strive to use as simple a word as possible—but not simpler. “

    Words need to fit; context and appropriateness; scale and scope; baggage and history.

    There is no one size fits all – different writing tasks call for different styles and approaches.

    There is the directness of Ernest Hemingway.

    Then – as an alternative approach – there is the ever-rolling, half page sprawling edifices of sesquipedalian locquacious splendour, replete with clause upon ornamented sub-clause, flowered and bedecked with all the beautiful phrases and faceted byzantine conjunctions of Mervyn Peake’s towering works of fantastic allegorical fiction.

    All in all, though, I agree with the central lessons – with the addition that “Whatever words you know right now, you use” needs to take into account that ‘right now’ is a moving target. If your vocabulary grows organically through reading broadly, it has a strong foundation – and does not grow in isolation.

    If your vocabulary grows through reading a thesaurus, the foundation is shaky, and you’ll be found out.

  • Henry Pratt

    On the odd chance that someone here has not seen “To a Thesaurus,” by Franklin P. Adams (“FPA”), I offer it as it appears at http://grammar.about.com/od/advicefromthepros/a/fpathesaurus.htm

    “To a Thesaurus”
    by Franklin P. Adams

    “O precious codex, volume, tome,
    Book, writing, compilation, work
    Attend the while I pen a pome,
    A jest, a jape, a quip, a quirk.

    “For I would pen, engross, indite,
    Transcribe, set forth, compose, address,
    Record, submit–yea, even write
    An ode, an elegy to bless–

    “To bless, set store by, celebrate,
    Approve, esteem, endow with soul,
    Commend, acclaim, appreciate,
    Immortalize, laud, praise, extol.

    “Thy merit, goodness, value, worth,
    Expedience, utility–
    O manna, honey, salt of earth,
    I sing, I chant, I worship thee!

    “How could I manage, live, exist,
    Obtain, produce, be real, prevail,
    Be present in the flesh, subsist,
    Have place, become, breathe or inhale,

    “Without thy help, recruit, support,
    Opitulation, furtherance,
    Assistance, rescue, aid, resort,
    Favor, sustention, and advance?

    “Alas! Alack! and well-a-day!
    My case would then be dour and sad,
    Likewise distressing, dismal, gray,
    Pathetic, mournful, dreary, bad.

    * * *

    “Though I could keep this up all day,
    This lyric, elegiac, song,
    Meseems hath come the time to say
    Farewell! Adieu! Good-by! So long!”

  • Henry Pratt

    N.B. The URL in my note at #13 was truncated. I hope that this re-post will show up correctly. The URL does not have ellipses. The missing section, after /od/ is advicefromthepros/a/fpathesaurus.htm

    http://grammar.about.com/od/advicefromthepros/a/fpathesaurus.htm

  • Henry Pratt

    Sorry to be such a pest, but it seems that the incomplete URL does work.

  • Henry Pratt

    Because Stephen King’s “On Writing,” cited in this pleasant article, is praised widely and warmly, there may be room for a dissenting voice. King has asserted that writers have no use for a thesaurus; that a thesaurus should be tossed into the wastebasket — literally. He adds that any word found in a thesaurus will be the wrong word, and he insists, after that pronouncement, that “there are no exceptions to that rule. None.”

    Much of “On Writing” is a touching memoir that has given hope and encouragement to young and inexperienced writers, and King’s rules of writing seem to me to play to that young and inexperienced audience, as well as to the older writer who has been discouraged by rejections.

    “On Writing,” offered by an uncommonly successful and popular writer, has advice that is both helpful and original. But as Lord Macaulay wrote in another context, what is helpful is not original, and what is original is not helpful. After enjoying “On Writing” for its emotional boost, I would move on to the more serious and detailed manuals that are available.

  • Topaz

    The last piece is sorta right. See, you should learn new words, but don’t be sitting at your desk the whole day reading the dictionary! “There’s a limit for everything,” my mom says, “and you need to learn the limit to succeed at the skill.”

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