Writers are surprisingly divided over the value of using the thesaurus. Some consider it their secret weapon; others regard it as a crutch. So which is it?
Stephen King’s opinion, from his 1988 essay “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully—in Ten Minutes” is now well known:
Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.
On the other hand, freelance veteran Linda K. Wertheimer noted in her article “An editing job improved my writing” (The Writer, July 2010) that her opinion of the thesaurus changed over time:
One of my best editors showed me the beauty of using the thesaurus, a book I once saw as a writer’s cheat sheet.
2 Reasons Writers Shouldn’t Be Using the Thesaurus
King’s anti-thesaurus position has two basic points in its favor:
1. The inherent artistic tenet that our best and truest work is that which flows as naturally as possible from the well of our creative subconscious.
2. The practical doctrine that if you have to look up a word, you probably don’t know it well enough to use it.
3 Reasons Writers Should Be Using the Thesaurus
Both of the above are decidedly strong arguments against relying on a thesaurus. But are they strong enough to induce us to chuck our thesauruses into the garbage?
In my opinion, no, they are not.
I use a thesaurus regularly and have no qualms doing so for several reasons:
1. I recognize my memory is a slippery and often uncooperative entity that isn’t always going to give me the word I need when I need it. (Daily occurrence: Smacking fist against forehead and groaning, “Ah! What is that word?”)
2. Why should writers limit their vocabulary to only words they’ve known and used all their lives? 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. Now, granted, this comes with a big caveat: The word must be correct, and you must understand it well enough to know whether it’s correct or not. When in doubt about a word, don’t use it.
3. In this age of instant virtual technology, you can click through word choices in seconds without endangering your flow of thought. Although I employ J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder as my emergency backup, I use the Encarta dictionary/thesaurus/translator installed on my computer almost exclusively.
Using or not using the thesaurus is an individual choice for each writer. Many writers agree with King that using the thesaurus ultimately cramps their creativity. But if you feel a thesaurus would benefit your writing, why not use it? In my case, the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks, and my thesaurus remains a valuable tool in my writing toolbox.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Where do you stand on the issue of using the thesaurus? Tell me in the comments!
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