Hint to Writers: Use the Thesaurus with Caution
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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