Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How to Use a Thesaurus to Improve Your Writing

As a fairly new writer, my thesaurus has quickly become a close companion. A thesaurus is used to find synonyms or antonyms to common (or uncommon) words--they can be helpful for vocabulary building, or just adding some variety to your writing. A thesaurus can be an excellent writing tool but it can also get you into trouble. Currently, I use an online thesaurus rather than a print one simply because it is at my fingertips on my phone, tablet, or laptop.

Photo credit: +Martha Curtis

What happens when you look up thesaurus in a thesaurus?

I tried it on thesaurus.com and was rewarded with this list of words:

  • Reference book
  • Glossary
  • Lexicon
  • Onomasticon
  • Terminology
  • Vocabulary
  • Language reference book
  • Sourcebook
  • Storehouse of words
  • Treasury of words

Dictionary.com defines the word Thesaurus as ‘a dictionary of synonyms and antonyms’

As I am writing, or rather, as I am editing, I begin to notice words terms I have used over and over again. These repetitions make my writing sound tired and dull stale and boring even to me.  If I can’t be excited about what I have written after only the second or third time seeing it, I know it will not seem fresh to a readers eyes either be stimulating to my reader either.  

In the above paragraph, I used the strike-through so that you could see some of the possible changes a thesaurus can help you to make. (Apologies for any difficulty you had reading it as a result).

I use my thesaurus to banish clichés from my writing, I use them to improve the description of a scene, and I use them when I cannot find the right word. I occasionally use the thesaurus to find a word that I have previously heard in conversation but am unsure of the meaning.

In her article, Is the Thesaurus Your Friend?, K.M. Weiland asks: 

'Why should a writer limit his vocabulary to words he's known and used all his life? If a word is correct for your story, it doesn't matter if you've known the word for years or if you just learned it.' 

 (Note: this is a partial quote, for the caveat; click through to her blog post).

Writing is not simply putting one word after another; good writing has a rhythm and flow that is almost musical. Consider your favorite Dr. Seuss book. Would he have been so popular writing about Sam the Turtle instead of Yertle the Turtle? Of course not! The lyrical way that he organized words is what made his books popular.

Readers do not want to read tired sentences; they enjoy lyrical locution. 

Would you rather listen to someone lecture in a monotone, or are you engaged by speakers with expressive inflection? Do you tune people out when they use the same tired words again and again? Personally, I would rather listen to someone who has life to their voice, and similarly want to read someone who has given that life to their words.

Perhaps you already know hundreds of thousands of words, and don’t believe you need a thesaurus. Let me ask you. Can you always recall the exact word you want to use at a given time? Do you know their meanings, and can you arrange them in a sentence with lyrical flow? If so, perhaps a thesaurus would not be your tool of choice.

Look at the possibilities for replacing the word "large" in your writing...
Look for inspiration in the antonyms too!

Photo credit: +Martha Curtis 

The thesaurus can be a great asset to help you find less-used words, or to help banish clichés from your writing but it can also be your downfall.

When you look up synonyms, you might see a word there that you had overlooked or didn't previously know the meaning to. Before you use it, consider this—will your reader know what it means? There are some words you can let context define for you, but if you get too heavy-handed with these flowery words, your reader will feel as though you are writing over their head and will lose interest quickly. Let this be a word of caution to use those words sparingly.

In her article, Hint to Writers: Use the Thesaurus with Caution, Jennifer Blanchard wrote: 

'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.'

Consider these examples:

The blonde laughed at me.

The golden-haired beauty giggled at me.

The auricomous gentlewoman cachinnated at me.

I personally would not have a clue what the writer was trying to tell me if I read that last sentence. I would either skim it and keep going—perhaps losing an important element in the story—or I would lay the book down and probably not pick it back up. Either way, if the writer did this to me again—I would be turned off and would not bother finishing the book.

A thesaurus can be a great tool to help you engage your reader and offer them some verbal variety but you must be careful not to overuse it. 

Do you use a thesaurus in your writing? If not, will you after reading this article? What is your favorite writing tool? I would love to hear from you in the comment section.


  1. I always use a Thesaurus when I write, it really does help a ton! I hate using the same words over and over in my writing.

    1. I completely agree Mariah. Sometimes my thesaurus is my back-up brain because I know I had a perfect word in mind and then I lost it.

  2. Wow, what a great reference. I also use an online Thesaurus, but I try to use words that people will understand and is in tune to my writing. I never use words that I don't use in everyday speech. When I can't think of a word, I use a thesaurus. Haha!

    Thanks so much for this, and for linking it up on the #homeschoollinkup. I'm pinning this post to my literacy board!

    1. Thanks for the Pin Lisa! I agree with not using words people don't know or can't infer the meaning from the context. Thanks for commenting!