On any given day if you glanced at my laptop screen you’d find multiple browser windows open. There would be tabs for Google Drive and Docs, a WordPress dashboard, Gmail and nearly always one for thesaurus.com. If you’ve spent any time honing your writing craft you might be cringing right about now. Don’t tell writers to use a thesaurus. That’s how you end up with sentences like: I went to the pharmaceutical emporium to pick up some effervescent drinks. Sometimes it’s ok to just say you went to the store to pick up some pop. But there may also be times where those words just aren’t sufficient. Those are times when you can use a thesaurus to add interest and depth to your writing.
You may want to convey more meaning without adding more words. There’s a reason there are so many words in every language and that Vancouverites have so many ways to describe rain. Your intimacy with a subject or object may enable you to offer a richer description—an intimacy that both validates your voice and requires you to be more meticulous with your language.
There’s a lot to be said for clear and simple writing. Many writers advocate for getting your point across in the simplest way possible. But sometimes the same common words keep coming to your mind when there’s a less common one that would be much more fitting. Those are the situations when you navigate to thesaurus.com. You want to say shout, but not quite shout. Sort of like shout but with a hint of surprise. You enter shout into thesaurus.com and it offers up a list of examples. Exclaim. That’s it. You know what the word exclaim means; you regularly use it in conversation. It accurately portrays what you want to say, it just wasn’t the first word that came to mind. Now instead of having an essay littered with the word shout, you’ve added variety and depth to your writing.
Using a thesaurus can be a great way to add interest to your writing, but it also comes with a few dangers. When I was in high school my English teacher used to tell us to examine our writing and replace common words with something we’d sourced from the thesaurus. After class I’d have classmates asking me if a certain word made sense in the context they were attempting to insert it into. If you can’t answer that question yourself, don’t use the word. If it’s a word you’d never use in normal conversation, don’t use the word. Adding big words doesn’t necessarily make your writing better; sometimes it makes it worse.
Match your words with sentences.
It’s also important to match your vocabulary to your sentence structure. If you think your writing really needs some interest, start by varying your sentences and then move to your word choice. (I’ll be talking about that more in a future post.) But if you just need a little assistance dredging up those synonyms, a thesaurus will do you some good.
Next time you sit down to write, pull up the thesaurus for assistance. If you use it sparingly and carefully it can add depth to your writing and richness to your descriptions. What are some of your go-to writing tools?