Is the Thesaurus Your Friend?

5 Pros and Cons of Using the Thesaurus

Is the Thesaurus Your Friend?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.

Synonym Finder JI Rodale3. 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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I understand if some writers choose not to use a thesaurus, but for me, it’s a helpful tool. Especially during those times you can’t remember a word (like you mentioned). I always write a rough first draft (no editing besides spelling and grammar issues), so I tend to use the thesaurus more in the rewrites.

    Happy 4Th of July, BTW 😉

  2. I love words. I’ll happily flick through a thesaurus and pick out words that I like the sound of, and follow a trail from one word to the next.

    What I WON’T do, is use it as a tool. While I’m writing, I won’t make a point of thinking, ‘Hmm…I want another word for…’ because generally it ends up sounding all very contrived!

  3. I use it during the editing phase to change words that I’ve gotten into a rut using. And I generally will also look them up to verify that they mean what the sentence needs. I’ve turned down words because they don’t mean what the same thing.

  4. @Mia: Using the thesaurus during rewrites eliminates the argument that it impairs your train of thought. One more reason to use it, IMO!

    @Bethany: Using a thesaurus or a dictionary for story prompts can be a very interesting exercise.

    @Linda: Yes, I probably use my thesaurus most during that phase. Repeat words are a blind spot – which is why the tool I used to create the picture for this week’s post can be handy in identifying overused words. Click on the image to visit the generator.

  5. I use it every once in awhile. Only when I feel there could be a better word than the one I’m think of, or if I’ve overused it in a MS.

    Great post!

  6. I see nothing wrong with a Thesaurus. I have a horrible habit of sometimes using one word and getting into a rut and using it over and over. And, there are other times when a word is on the tip of my tongue (or fingertips) and it won’t come to me, and I know the mearning (hate it when that happens) and I need to look, then kick myself after that “duh” moment. The book I use and love is the Flip Dictionary.

  7. I’m with the rest of you–using a thesaurus to jog my memory for the word that is right there but I can’t quite grab. I’d venture to guess Stephen King would give his approval of that, because it’s about using a word you’d use normally anyway. The issue is using a thesaurus in search of a word that would not come naturally to you as a person or a writer.

  8. @Karen: Without doubt, the thesaurus can become a crutch, but use when it’s needed can only be helpful.

    @Amy: I think all writers have a tendency to overuse pet words.

    @Kat: If we’re using a strange word because we want our writing to sound smarter than it is, then we’re almost always in trouble.

  9. I think this is the first time I’ve seen a post on this topic and I’m so glad! I agree. I use the thesaurus in Word all the time. Not because my vocabulary is lacking, but because I have a nasty habit of reusing the same word too often and the missing/correct is at the tip of my tongue. As soon as I see it I have one of those “slap myself on the forehead” moments. Why not use every tool available to us?

  10. I wouldn’t be without my thesaurus. I have Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com on my computer. In addition, I own a copy of Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus.

    Unlike Roget’s other thesaurus books that list words by category, this one is in dictionary format.

    I reach for it all the time, because I know I can polish the word I have in my head.

    I even have a spare copy that I carry with me in my ever-present bag.

  11. @Lisa: Another interesting aspect of the thesaurus is that sometimes unexpected word choices can lead the story in new and exciting ways.

    @Lorna: The Dictionary.com app is my probably the most used app on my iTouch. Love it.

  12. This is very interesting. I have never heard that the Thesaurus could possibly be a writer’s enemy. I can see the point but will be keeping it as my friend for those classic…I can’t remember that WORD! or I want to be more direct with the word I use. After all I am not Stephen King.
    Thank you so much for this article!

  13. Not many of us are Stephen King!

  14. You are so right, the bottom line is using the *correct* word. The thesaurus helps us find it. We’re not trying to show off our vocabulary or plug in a “bigger, better” word, we’re trying to find just the right one. And most of the time we know it when we see it listed–especially since it’s becoming increasingly harder to recapture it from a fading memory:-) Can you tell–I think the thesaurus is a valuable tool!

  15. Well said. Using a thesaurus is kind of like a spin on the old saying about a small precise word being better than a large general word. The right word, found with the help of the thesaurus, is better than the wrong word without it!

  16. What hinders my creativity more is getting stuck on a word I want but can’t remember. That’s when a thesaurus helps to keep the flow going. Because I *know* there’s a word out there I want, and it drives me crazy if I can’t think of it.

    I use Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com, too.

  17. I happily use my thesaurus in my writing. Although, I still end up choosing a word I’m familiar with, the thesaurus often helps me better convey a particular feeling to my readers. Sometimes just a small change in a word helps the entire sentence come to life.

  18. @BJ: Drives me crazy too. Takes much less time to look up a word in the thesaurus than to sit there waiting for my memory to kick in.

    @Christine: Writing is all about the details, and no where more so than in word choice itself.

  19. I can’t survive without a thesaurus. My poor brain is constantly forgetting words.

  20. I can’t remember the last time I used a thesaurus. Mark Twain said: “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” I used to try to use the thesaurus, but I found a lot of lightning bugs–none of the words fit exactly what I wanted to say. Even if I have to use the same few words over and over again, I think they stick out less than trying too hard, and too obviously, to use different words. After all, it worked for Hemingway, so I can’t complain.

  21. @Lynda: Brains are unreliable that way.

    @David: Yes, thesauruses contain lots of lightning bugs, but there’s some lightning in there too.

  22. I’m one of the few people not particularly fond of most of King’s work, but I do like his “On Writing”. I actually find his fiction tedious to read from a stylistic standpoint, so perhaps the use of a thesaurus may have helped (though I doubt it). But since he’s making the money…I’ll shut my trap on that. 😉

    I haven’t used a thesaurus in years and years. It’s not through any kind of conscious decision though…it’s just that I tend to forget such a thing exists. I may have to try it out the next time I’m attempting to replace oft-used words…seems like that would be a very appropriate use for it.

  23. I’d use it like you do, because my memory is short sometimes. 🙂 Or I’d suggest not using it on the first draft but, if in revisions you notice yourself using one word too much, see if you can find a better word. And take the time to research it to make sure it is a better word in that context.

  24. I’m most inclined to use the Thesaurus (I like Synonym Finder too) in revisions when I realize I’ve used the same word way too many times and need that spark of inspiration to find some alternatives.

    It’s also fun to use the on-line Virtual Thesaurus, although I haven’t yet used the full, paid-for, version.

  25. @Jamie: I’m not a King reader either, actually, although I appreciate his creativity.

    @Koala: My memory had decreased thanks to head trauma a few years ago, so I’m in trouble if I have to rely solely on it.

    @Terry: I enjoy visual dictionaries too, particularly since I’m primarily a visual learner.

  26. I use a Thesaurus but mostly in revisions. When I have a noun I’m working with I like to see all the verb choices for that word. It opens up possibilities. Often I don’t change anything but the research might color the way I use the word in the future.

  27. The world of vocabulary is a world if possibilities for us to master.

  28. I love, love, love my Rodale’s Thesaurus! With fibro-fog putting holes in my memory, I NEED something to plug up the holes! I’ve used it so much that I’ve had to tape the spine! Great post, Katie!

  29. I love my thesaurus simply for the fact that it helps me avoid echo words. If I’ve used cried already and can’t think of a good synonym off the top of my head, I have no qualms with opening my copy of Rogets.

  30. I don’t use it drafting, but in revision? Oh yes. Sometimes I know the type of word I want, but not exactly the right word. I find Onelook dictionary to be such a valuable resource.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  31. @Lynn: My Synonym Finder is a paperback, and I’ve regretted not purchasing it in hardcover to start with. I’ll have to replace it sooner or later.

    @Stephanie: I’m careful with using substitute words, just because it can become obvious to readers that that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’d rather repeat the word than use the wrong word.

    @Angela: Thanks for sharing the Onelook resource. I’ll go check it out.

  32. I think the problem with a Thesaurus is when a writer uses them to find “fancier words” or is “overwriting” and thus needs to find more uses of one way to say something. That’s probably why SK advises throwing them away.

    I’ve done the “right click” and checked synonyms/thesauras if I’m in a brain funk, but ONLY after I’ve done the initial “Vomit it all out” first draft – there I write like SK advises-just get the story out! Details later! In re-writing, if something doesn’t sound quite right, I may do the right click synonym thing 🙂

  33. I often know that there is a better word than the one I remember, but I don’t always know what it is. I use a thesaurus only in those cases, which are pretty rare.

  34. I use one frequently but for this reason:

    “I recognize that 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?)”

    I have to agree with this:

    ” 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.”

    The few times early on that I used a word I picked up from the thesaurus but didn’t know previously, it was a mistake. The dictionary definition just doesn’t give the shades of meaning and implication that seeing a word used in context does.

  35. @Kathryn: I prefer to edit as I go, so I will usually take the time to check not-quite-right words as I’m writing. Slows me down some, but it makes for a much cleaner first draft.

    @Author Guy: That’s the way to do it. Use when needed, no more, no less.

    @Leah: I’ll heartily agree regarding shades of meaning. Context is everything.

  36. When I’m writing I have to let it flow and don’t stop for anything.

    I resort to the Thesaurus on subsequent reads when I find frequent use of the same word or the tone or rhythm isn’t quite right.

    The online versions help tremendously since I’m not using them “real time”. I have a chance to study the meanings and choose carefully.

  37. I use online and software versions almost exclusively now. It’s so ridiculously handy to be able to get definitions and synonyms with the click of a button.

  38. Oh, I use Dictionary.com too! (And thesaurus.com – both are very useful!) Using a thesaurus can be very helpful, like others have said, when you are trying to think of a certain word, but you can’t remember it. Or, a thesaurus can remind you of a word you know, but just forgot at the moment you need it. I definitely use a thesaurus, but yes, it can make one’s writing sound ridiculous if you use a ton of words that ordinary people don’t know. One more thing: books that do use words that you don’t know, can just help you learn new words, and that is a benefit. ~Carrie

  39. I’m a vocabulary nut. I love words. Learning new and chewy words is one of the joys of reading. But it’s one thing to read a word once, another to know how to use it correctly.

  40. I use a thesaurus mostly to jog my memory, as you indicated in your post. My memory is far from great, especially with so much running through it all the time. I occasionally do need that bump of looking for just the right word.

    Also, I don’t like to be overly repetitive. If I notice I’m using a word a lot in a section or entire work, I run to the thesaurus and dictionary to find the right substitutions.

  41. I’m of the opinion there’s one right word for every situation. While writing, thesaurus.com is always on tab. I’ve owned and beaten my SYNONYM FINDER to shame. Man I need that thing in a searchable database! Any writer who shies away from better understanding/use of the English language deserves to be shot–on sight.

  42. @Liberty: Repetitions drive me crazy in my own work – mostly because I’m so frustratingly blind to them. I’m looking forward to using PageFour‘s word scan feature in future projects.

    @Cheesy: I wonder if The Synonym Finder is in Kindle format yet. The search feature would come in mighty handy!

  43. I use the thesaurus sometimes, mostly in editing when I have overused a word. By the way, I LOVE that picture. Wordle is amazing as both a tool and a toy!

  44. Isn’t Wordle cool? I had fun putting the graphic together for this post.

  45. I use one mostly because I don’t have a large vocabulary…when I need it, my vocabulary grows AND I get a new word to put in my WIP.. 😀

  46. Double whammy!

  47. I don’t use it when I WRITE, but when I rewrite I periodically look for ‘the better’ word. I never choose a word that isn’t familiar to me, but as you mentioned, my memory sometimes just hits a roadblock, so seeing my choices allows me to PICK the perfect word. (this is maybe half a dozen words per 80K work)

  48. If you only have to grab the thesaurus half a dozen times per book, my hat’s off to you. My memory gapes at me every day, seems like.

  49. I love my thesaurus too. I find it fun to seek new words. 🙂

  50. Flipping through it is always good for random inspiration.

  51. A very useful post, K.M.! I just posted this link to my blog’s “Friday Friends.” I think my readers will enjoy it.

    Happy weekend!

  52. And I just came from Mohamed’s blog above! Don’t you just love the blogging community?!

    I think your point about using a thesaurus if you really ‘understand’ the word is very important. I used to edit new writers’ work, and it is very obvious when someone uses a thesaurus and has no idea at all what the words mean.

  53. @Mohamed: Thanks so much for sharing the link!

    @Jayne: Definitely. Knowing a word is one thing; understanding how to use it is sometimes another thing entirely.

  54. A thesaurus comes in handy when you’ve already used the same word in previous sentences in a chapter and you want to change it up–you know to keep the rythym flowing.

  55. Sometimes our brains fixate on a particular word or phrase. The thesaurus is an easy way to shake us out of a rut.

  56. Posting the link to this post sure generated some interesting international considerations on my own blog; I’ll definately keep an eye on your continuing posts for future installments of “Friday Friends.” 🙂

  57. Generated some extra traffic for me too. Thanks!

  58. I hope I’m not too late to join this discussion! I use the thesaurus often for the purpose of broadening my vocabulary, so when the time comes to write, the info is already there, waiting to flow from my brain! =) I also have lots of fun with the synonym blog based on “The Thinker Thesaurus” by Peter E. Meltzer. It gives not so ordinary synonyms and contextual examples of those words. I even use it for writing prompts and I highly recommend it. Happy writing!

  59. Never too late! The Thinker Thesaurus sounds great. Thanks for sharing the link.

  60. M.L. Bull says:

    Nice post! I use a thesaurus mostly while editing my manuscript. I love looking up and switching around words, because in some cases it can help liven up your story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I actually find I use it more when drafting. By the time, I get to editing, I’m more likely to chop a word than replace it. :p

  61. To my knowledge, K. M. is unique in the pronunciation of this word. As the author of the best selling of OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL, she can afford to by unique.

  62. Rae Warren says:

    When a word is jive dancing around the edge of my thoughts and the one I’ve used isn’t quite right, the thesaurus is my saviour.

  63. Just wait till Stephen King is SEVENTY and can’t think of that word that he’s used a thousand times. It is NOT cheating. It’s being wise with your time (what, sit there for an hour trying to think of that word, losing the gist of your scene, getting angry and ready to quit?) Of course use the word correctly. Of course don’t just pad your story or article with pompous sounding words. USE it, not as a crutch, but as a long-time friend who remembers the good times you’ve had together and can give you a nudge when your memory fails.
    Sheesh!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yup, you’ve summed up my point in one paragraph, where it took me a whole post. 😉

Trackbacks

  1. […] article that my morning of internet searching produced was called Is the Thesaurus Your Friend? This interesting post discusses how writers are divided over the value of the thesaurus (as I had […]

  2. […] Reading – Is the Thesaurus Your Friend? by KM Weiland, Hint to Writers: Using the Thesaurus with Caution by Jennifer Blanchard, and […]

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