A writer, like any builder, uses tools to build stories and the sentences that make them up. The technology has changed over time, from parchment to typewriters to computers, but certain resources — dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias (or Google, in today’s speak) — have aided writers for centuries in their ability to construct powerful thoughts.
Like any tool, these resources should be used with intention, not only to maximize their benefits, but also (perhaps more importantly) to avoid using them as a crutch. A thesaurus, for instance, can be an excellent tool for finding the right word or adding variety to your language, but when overused can lead to confusing or inauthentic prose. To maximize on the Gifts of the Good Book, next time you hit up Merriam-Webster or Thesaurus.com, try focusing on these core uses:
Everyone who has sat down and written a sentence, or just been talking at a dinner table, has been there. You’ve just thought of the most groundbreaking idea and can’t wait to get it down on paper, but when you start writing or speaking, the word won’t come. It’s on the tip of your tongue, but somewhere deep in the annals of your brain, a file went missing.
Time for a thesaurus. Start by specifying what it is you’re generally trying to say (with the words you do have available) and think of the closest relative to the word you’re looking for, even if it doesn’t mean the same thing. Type that word into the thesaurus, and start scrolling through the synonyms to see if your missing word is in there. If you’re still not finding it, see if there’s a synonym listed that’s at least one degree closer in meaning, and click on that. Then keep clicking until you arrive at the magic word. On the rare occasion that you don’t end up solving your puzzle this way, you’ve got a pretty good chance of at least finding a different word that means the same thing.
Unless you’re using repetition as a creative choice, too much of it can disengage your reader. Instead of repeating these words:
I went to the store to buy chicken for dinner tonight, but the store was out of chicken, so I had to choose a different meat to make for dinner. We ended up having steak for dinner instead.
You might try this:
I went to the store to buy chicken for dinner tonight, but the store was out of poultry, so I had to choose a different meat to make for the meal. We ended up having steak
for dinner instead.
In the first of these two sentences, the writer chose to replace “dinner” and “chicken” with similar words, allowing for more variety.
However, this is where it’s important to be careful with how you choose your replacements. Chicken and poultry are not direct synonyms, so this sentence only works if the entire poultry section (chicken, duck, goose, etc.) was out of stock, or if the poultry section only carried chicken. That judgment call is ultimately up to the writer, but it’s important to make sure you’re not just choosing the nearest synonym without considering how it might change the meaning of the sentence.
In the second sentence, deleting the third occurrence of “dinner” was preferable to finding a synonym, since, in this case, it wasn’t necessary for comprehension. While a thesaurus can switch up your language for smoother reading, it’s rarely the only option available to you.
A writer’s tools are great for *the craft*, but they’re also wonderful resources for learning. Try productively procrastinating sometime by clicking through a thesaurus and finding new ways to say the same ole thing.
As you expand your vocabulary, though, make sure you’re still using the right word for what you want to say, rather than the longest or the fanciest, just for the sake of it. Long, lesser-used words are perfectly fine to include, but make sure you’re using them because they’re right for your sentence and your story, rather than to impress your reader. You’re far more likely to win them over with clear and precise writing than with vocabulary.
This has nothing to do with writing, but I think about it every time I use a thesaurus, so if that’s not a good enough reason to love this tool, you got me.
I'm a fiction book editor and writing coach, specializing in anti-perfectionist writing habits for indie authors.
In this house, we leave perfection at the door and write with curiosity, clarity, and joy.
Sound like your jam? Click "Work with Me" below to get in touch. I would love to hear your story.
A biweekly newsletter about story development, anti-perfectionism, and the lovable chaos of creativity.