We’ve all heard of the thesaurus. We used them in school, the old Merriam-Webster ones that could have doubled as giant door stops. Now and again, we would pick one up to try and figure out what a word meant, based on other words that could be used in its place. I know I did.
It wasn’t until writing my first book, that I truly came to appreciate the thesaurus and what it can do for writers. What’s more, you can get all the information online now, so you don’t need to cart around the War and Peace-sized book to look up words from. Thesaurus.com was a life saver for me while writing, Adeline and the Mystic Berries. Sometimes you just need to know other ways to say colorless.
Here’s the thing with using a thesaurus when you are writing your manuscripts: you don’t want your readers knowing you used one. I have seen it in several books now where the author picked the most obscure, difficult to understand word, to replace the one they’d already used before. It is just one more thing that can draw the reader away from your story.
They are left wondering, “What does bantam mean?” because you decided that you needed another word for small but didn’t want to say that the book was a “tiny edition.” Saying a “bantam edition” just sounded cool.
If your goal was to have your reader grabbing their bedside dictionary so they could figure out what that word means, then you’ve succeeded. If you wanted your reader to keep reading and not have the flow of your story stopped, you may have missed the mark a bit.
It sounds silly, I know, but I’m telling you it happens all the time. I have looked words up before and stopped reading, because I didn’t want to miss anything important. What if bantam was a crucial detail to where the book (in the example above) came from? How was I to know it just meant small?
The thesaurus can be both a writing aid and a crutch (see post on Understanding Our Flaws in Writing). Don’t let it become the latter.
On a side note, Thesaurus.com also has a sister site which can be found in the upper tabs on their webpage, called Dictionary.com. This is a wonderful resource as well, giving you the dictionary at your fingertips, and best of all, it weighs nothing! I usually have both up simultaneously whenever I write.
How often do you find yourself using the thesaurus while writing? Have you ever come across a word that made you pause because the writer chose an obscure word over an easier variation?