Why does my writing instructor recommend that I avoid using a thesaurus?
Published: June 14, 2011
Q: My writing instructor recommends writers avoid using a thesaurus, but I find it’s a great way to discover new words. What’s wrong with using one?
A: Your writing instructor isn’t alone in advising writers to stay away from the thesaurus, that mighty tome of words, their synonyms and related concepts. Plenty of writers, including Stephen King, have warned against consulting such resources. Used improperly, the thesaurus can make bad writing even worse. Too often, writers turn to it looking simply to swap one word for another, but words are rarely that interchangeable. When you’re heading out the door, you don’t simply reach in your bin and pluck out any old hat. Operating under that practice, you might end up wearing a floppy straw hat on a day when the temperature plummets below zero, a baseball cap to your sister’s formal wedding, or a bike helmet for a romantic walk on the beach. They’re all head coverings, but they clearly have different uses.
Used carefully, however, the thesaurus can be a great writers’ tool. When searching, consider every aspect of a word, including denotation, the dictionary definition, and connotation, the ideas or emotions suggested by that word. Let’s say I’m looking to replace the word “dim” in this sentence:
She sat in the leather armchair in a dim corner of the study.
Some synonyms simply won’t work in context (black, dusk) and others might sound too formal given the voice (stygian, tenebrific). Some synonyms will skew the scene toward the eerie (gloomy, shadowy), while others will bring out the emptiness (lightless).
Let’s say that I want this image colored with romance. Her lover is watching her from the entryway of the study upon arriving home from a brief trip. I see “moonless” and “starless” associated with “dim,” and those are interesting, but a bit too lonely for my intentions. If my use of the thesaurus stops here—as it does for many writers—I’ll be left with a sentence that still doesn’t quite capture my intentions or, worse, one that brazenly goes against them. But if I keep going, I might end up somewhere promising. The entry “moonless” gives me an idea: “She sat in the leather armchair in a moonlit corner of the study.” I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting closer, and I might zigzag across the thesaurus looking at several other related listings to find the best fit.
The quality of your thesaurus is going to make a big difference in its usefulness. The bare bones thesaurus on your word processor won’t offer nearly as much opportunity to explore and stumble upon that perfect word as a genuine Roget’s Thesaurus, which provides categories of related words instead of an A to Z listing. According to author Arthur Plotnick, a Roget’s allows writers an adventure: “Traveling from theme to theme, directed by cross-references and other clues, one lives among word families, discovers Shangri-las of exotic terminology, beholds clashes of synonyms and antonyms, and finds adventure even in misused words.” When that perfect word eludes you, a thesaurus may be just the adventure you need to happen upon it.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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