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

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

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. @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.

  6. 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.

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

  8. 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.” 🙂

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

  10. 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!

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

  12. 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

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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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