Learn to Love Your Thesaurus

Words are incredibly powerful things, but synonyms can offer the killer blow. Here’s why writers should learn to love their thesaurus.

You’ll have to forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious, but words are incredibly powerful things. You only need to take a look at the enormous size of the Oxford English Dictionary to know this. If you dropped it on somebody’s head from a great height, it would kill them—that’s an irrefutable fact. In fact, words are even more powerful than a blunt force instrument to the head. It’d be virtually impossible to even print a book large enough to capture every single word ever used since the dawn of time.

Even if they did somehow manage to publish an Ultimate Dictionary with every word ever used in the whole of human history, it’d probably weigh more than a million tons. For this reason, if you’re going to commit yourself to the perilous task of writing a story, you must surrender yourself to this huge weight of words that civilisation has bestowed upon us and hope you don’t end up as flat as a pancake.

And I hate to break it to you, but the truth is the comparatively tiny amount of words which pop into your head while you’re writing your story are nowhere near enough to express yourself. You are doomed to take the easy route. The human brain will always opt for simple words. Sorry to say it, but oft-repeated expressions which you use in daily conversation ad infinitum will bleed into your writing.

As writers, I feel we owe it to ourselves to broaden our palette, such as reviving old words not used in aeons, for example, or just merely plumping for different choices to widen your vocabulary. Writing is a voyage, after all. It’s for this reason I feel a thesaurus is such a vital tool for writers, much more so than a dictionary. Lest we forget, the word saurus comes from the Greek word meaning treasury so there’s a real embarrassment of riches waiting to be discovered. Trust me on that, a thesaurus truly is a treasure trove.

So, how exactly does one use a thesaurus? Why is it so important for writers? And what is it about a thesaurus which can make you a better a writer? Well, here are three reasons why I feel every writer should learn to love their thesaurus:

1. You can finally stop repeating yourself

Using a thesaurus and finding alternatives to words means you can avoid using the same words again and again. This is especially apparent for words which—for whatever reason—you have a tendency to repeat as a bad habit. Whenever you’re proof-reading, underline every repeated occurrence of a particular word and see if you can find a different one. Mind you, you might want to be careful with this: you don’t want to choose a similar word which seems too unusual, out-of-place, or incongruous.

But what a thesaurus will give you is new options and this will help you to step outside of your comfort zone. I hate it if I find I use the same words, even in completely different stories, so a thesaurus can help me to find a different way of expressing that same thought, or feeling. At the end of the day, a thesaurus helps me see my story as a canvas, so the words end up being little more than brush-strokes. A different word here or there is just a way of brushing up, down, or sideways, until the colours blend together better. This is what a thesaurus can help you to do.

2. Synonyms can help add many extra dimensions to your writing

No matter what you’re stuck with, whether it’s a character’s personality traits, or a particular scene you’re trying to set, your thesaurus can save you. Let’s say a word pops into your head, such as ‘shy’ for example—you want the main character in your story to be shy. This one word (‘shy’) throws up many synonyms, such as ‘afraid’ (what is he/she afraid of?), ‘circumspect’ (what’s he/she hiding?), ‘modest’ (is the shyness just a mask?), ‘disinclined’ or ‘indisposed’ (is this character demotivated?), ‘wary’ or ‘fearful’ (how would these words translate to body language?).

Hopefully you see where this is going—a word which is overused (‘shy’) can be your gateway to mapping your character inside and out. The same follows with your story. Go then, next time you’re stuck, just jot a word down, open your thesaurus and find the synonyms. List them. Then do it again for another word. You’ll soon find yourself building a picture out of your thoughts, just like a puzzle. And the best thing about that is, once you take a step back, you’ll find you understand your story much, much better, even if you don’t end up using half the words you’ve actually discovered.

3. Brainstorming requires wordstorming

Admittedly, this is more of an extension of number two, but I cannot stress this enough: writing is a process which relies on words to flourish. It’s all very well to trust your intuition and just write the damn thing, but I feel a thesaurus gives you a chance to explore your story from different angles. Finding synonyms and alternative meanings can conjure a mood you never knew was there before.

For example, say your ‘shy’ character steps into a room which is ‘dimly-lit’. Pick up your thesaurus, and search for the word ‘dimly’. You’ll find ‘lethargically’, ‘listlessly’, ‘slowly’ and ‘sluggishly’. Perhaps this room could now become a reflection of your ‘shy’ character’s personality—the mood you could conjure in this scene may now be obvious. Maybe you could use these synonyms to describe this environment as being a manifestation of your character’s own sense of self.

Or, if you want to be daring, you could go in the opposite direction. Take a look at those same synonyms of the word ‘dimly’ and then conjure the very opposite mood when that character steps in the room. Instead of it filling the character with lethargy, they could feel full of energy. And what can happen in a dimly-lit room? Sex? Perhaps your character is shy in public but comes alive in more intimate settings, with a love interest. Soon enough, your ‘shy’ character may now be someone completely different in this dimly-lit room than the synonyms otherwise suggest.

My point is: wordplay is integral to adding extra meat to the bones of your plot. My own view is that using a thesaurus can help you to appreciate the many different facets of your story you might not even have considered. Not only can a thesaurus offer you a perfect word you’d long since forgotten, but it can even offer words you’d never heard before but capture the subtext you’re trying to put across better.

Most crucially, a thesaurus offers you a method of using words to take a full 360 degree view of your characters, and the situations they find themselves in. I see no reason why a writer shouldn’t love your thesaurus. It may never love you back, but when it comes to words, it will be the most faithful partner a writer could ever have.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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