Putting Down The Thesaurus


Have you ever turned to a thesaurus in an attempt to pretty up your writing? I think every writer has at some point.

While it can be a useful tool for avoiding repetition, there’s an easy trap to fall in to. When you start using words that readers aren’t familiar with or don’t understand, they’ll switch off in seconds. No one wants to slug through something that reads like an academic text. That two page description of the rain-soaked garden in your book that’s full of flowery words and exotic adjectives? People will be snoring before they reach the end of the first paragraph.

Ernest Hemingway said this,

‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.’

So if you keep finding yourself turning to a thesaurus, then stop because you’re probably just hurting your writing. Take a simpler approach and drill down in to the core of what you want to say. Sentences need to spark with life, and no amount of fancy synonyms are going to alter the underlying intent of the words.

I enjoyed this short drunken rant of Charles Bukowski in an old interview (I think that’s how every interview of his went now that I think about it). After the bit about death, he comes around to what makes good writing and how each line must ‘have its own juice.’ Some useful advice, and the ending put a smile on my face.

(Side note. ‘Bim Bim Bim!’ is my new favourite phrase).

© 2015, Gavin Zanker. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Photo by Sean Kelly licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

3 thoughts on “Putting Down The Thesaurus”

  1. Amen to that. As an editor, I find that the big danger with thesaurus overuse comes when the writer doesn’t realize that two words close in meaning have different connotations. Sometimes either one will work, though not in quite the same way. Other times one will be glaringly, even embarrassingly wrong. Good writers have extensive vocabularies, and they’re always expanding. The words we use regularly become ours. We know how and where and when to use them. Words we pluck out of the thesaurus may be familiar enough, both to us and to our readers, but they can be like shoes or jeans that haven’t been broken in yet.

    I’ve never been a thesaurus user, but lately I’ve discovered that my two online thesauruses (Merriam-Webster’s and Oxford) can come in handy. I edit a fair number of academic papers and books by writers whose first language is not English. Their English is generally excellent, but not always idiomatic. When I come to a word that clearly isn’t right but I’m not sure what the right word is, I look it up in the thesaurus. Among the list of synonyms and near-synonyms I almost always find one that works better.

    1. I like that imagery – making words your own like a comfortable pair of old clothes. I find it’s easy to pick out the unfamiliar words that have been shoehorned in, because like you say, they’re so obviously out of place. I tend to notice it more in poetry where people try so hard to make everything so flowery. As an editor, I imagine you must get tired of seeing it all the time.

      I still use a thesaurus, just not to the extent that I used to. They really can be a useful tool but I think people need more self-control in using them. Appreciate the read.

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