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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

The Thesaurus: Evil or Not Evil?

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Overuse of a thesaurus is a common problem among writers. And it's understandable. When you're in a bind and just can't think of an alternative word to the one you've written, thesauruses are an easy way to get new ideas. The problem with thesauruses isn't the actual use or intent behind using them; it's how the words are then incorporated. If you've spent a lot of time working on a piece and have established a sound voice and style of narrative, you don't want it to be ruined by something simple like a word that doesn't quite fit. An error like that has an amateur feel to it, even if the rest of the piece is written well. It will be especially clear to the reader if you suddenly throw in some big words into the middle of otherwise everyday language.

Here are some tips for incorporating new words into your writing without relying on a thesaurus:

  • Follow/Subscribe to blogs with daily vocabulary posts. Even if you just glance at the posts for these, you'll be taking in new information. It's also the easiest way of checking out new words, as there is little to no effort on research involved.
  • Use interactive sites to learn new vocabulary. Interactive sites offer a valuable learning tool when it comes to unfamiliar words. Not only do they provide the word and definition, but they challenge you to see if you're really retaining the information. Some, like, actually use the traffic to donate to others in need. It's a great way to learn and to give back.
  • Look up words you don't know or are unsure of. There is no shame in not knowing a word or in being unsure about it. It doesn't mean you're dumb or that you're bad at writing. I actually do it myself frequently. Writers and editors are responsible for questioning everything that goes into a story, and a bit of extra research is part of that responsibility. Plus, if you don't know a word well and use it incorrectly, you'll probably get some grief for it. Be sure to pay careful attention to the part of speech when you're looking up a new word; correct usage is what trips people up most often.
  • Use learned words in everyday conversations. As is the key with everything else in writing, practicing use of these new words is essential. It's comparable to learning a foreign language. The phrase, "If you don't use it, you'll lose it," holds very true in this case. You can further increase your skills by incorporating the new words into your writing. The more practice you have using uncommon words, the more easily they will mesh with your prose and dialogue.

Sometimes a thesaurus simply cannot be avoided. It's one of those tools that every writer needs from time to time, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, if done consistently and in conjunction with the style of writing/prose, using one to find more sophisticated words (generally a big no-no) is okay.

Here are some tips for when you do use a thesaurus:

  • Pick the word that fits best, not just one that sounds neat. Specifically, use the word that is most consistent with the style of the prose and/or dialogue. Try out a few different ones to make sure the one you pick is really the best option. Get a second opinion if need be.
  • Keep thesaurus use to a minimum. Relying too heavily on a thesaurus can not only set you back after a while, it can alter your writing style and unique voice as an author.
  • If you use a word from the thesaurus, take the time to learn it. Doing so will allow you to make better use of it in your future writing, and you will likely become more adept at incorporating it.

Contrary to what you might think or have heard, thesauruses are not the spawn of Satan. They do not take away from writing when used correctly; they are often a great utensil for writers, barring a few reservations. The trick is being able to distinguish when their use is an advantage and when it's a crutch.