EDITING 101: 11 – Using a Thesaurus…

Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy of Adirondack Editing

Using a Thesaurus

When you were in grammar school, you were taught the terms antonym and synonym. An antonym is a word that means the opposite of another word: love/hate, hot/cold, spring/fall, light/dark. Synonyms are words meaning the same thing (or nearly the same thing): light/bright, traitor/Benedict Arnold, flat/horizontal, soft/cushiony. A thesaurus is a book which lists synonyms for many words and can come in very handy for a writer. The first one you were exposed to was probably Roget’s Thesaurus. The one I like to use is the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. If you don’t want to use a book, there are online thesauri, such as http://www.thesaurus.com and http://freethesaurus.net/. Microsoft Word has a built-in thesaurus. You can find it by right clicking on any word and going to Synonyms, and from there to Thesaurus.

So why is a thesaurus important to writers? The appropriate use of a thesaurus can make your writing fresh, unique, and meaningful. The inappropriate use of thesaurus can make you look pompous, arrogant, and make your writing unintelligible. What do I mean? Let’s repeat that second sentence:

  • The apposite application of a proper lexicon can formulate your literature innovative, exclusive, and profound.

Huh? Did she say the same thing as before?”

Well, kind of. That’s an obvious example of pompous, arrogant, and unintelligible, and since I simply replaced words, it doesn’t even make sense. Do you want your writing to sound like that? No, probably not. Not even if you were writing a scientific paper.

But let’s consider the appropriate use of a thesaurus. In your writing—somewhere in there—somebody almost certainly walks. Perhaps they do a lot of walking. Perhaps many characters do a lot of walking, and so the word “walk” becomes somewhat redundant. Even if it doesn’t does everybody always walk? “Walk” is bland, weak, and listless. Let’s consider some alternatives from MS Word’s thesaurus:

walk tread stride stroll saunter march amble hike promenade toddle stagger perambulate ramble meander wander dawdle mosey roam rove travel journey tramp trudge slog plod lumber scramble journey shuffle hobble shamble waddle trundle limp

Can you visualize the subtle differences between all these different verbs? How would they sound and what kind of description would they indicate in your book?

  • Harold walked to the store.

    • Yawn!

  • Harold rambled to the store.

    • Harold seems to be an aimless, casual sort of person.

  • Harold lumbered to the store.

    • Harold is apparently large and doesn’t move easily.

  • Harold trudged to the store.

    • This isn’t a good day for Harold.

  • Harold dawdled to the store.

    • Harold may be avoiding somebody in the store.

  • Harold journeyed to the store.

    • This store seems to be quite far away from Harold’s original location.

So if you’re finding weak, bland, listless verbs and nouns in your writing, haul out the thesaurus and spice up your writing!

But don’t go overboard into pompous and unintelligible.

Next week we’ll discuss ‘Directions and Impossibilities’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE

NOTE:

This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.

Susan

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36 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 11 – Using a Thesaurus…

  1. Thank you, Susan, another excellent post! I had an instructor who once told me the best way to use a thesaurus is to look for a word that you are thinking about but can’t come to mind. He went on to say people often use words from a thesaurus that they don’t truly understand the meaning of, or how to use them, which results in awkward sentence constructions or inaccurate descriptions. Basically he said a thesaurus is a great tool, if used correctly.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on Write of Passage and commented:
    Searching for the right word? Don’t simply choose a synonym from a thesaurus in your writing and expect it will convey your meaning. Each word has an often subtle difference in definition and usage that can change the meaning of your passage. In this re-blog of Chris the Story Reading Ape’s latest post, the effect on your meaning is explained clearly.
    Thanks for sharing this, Chris!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I use the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms during editing, when I get stuck for an alternative for ‘look’ which I can use five times in one paragraph with no difficulty. My brain doesn’t do quick crosswords as quickly as it used to, either!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for sharing which book works for you, Jemima! You’re not alone in overusing common words. That’s fine during the first draft, but when revising, writers need to ferret out the ones they overuse.

      If you already know the words you tend to overuse (in your case, “look”), you can do a Find/Replace (in Word) for the same word, only with highlighting added to the replaced version. Then you’ll really see them! You can use different colors for different words, if you like. When you’re all finished with that chore, simply select the entire document (Ctrl+A for Windows) and choose Highlight Color None to remove the ones you have left!

      Liked by 4 people

  4. Reblogged this on TINA FRISCO and commented:
    Susan Uttendorfsky brings us Part 11 of her Editing 101 series on The Story Reading Ape: Using a Thesaurus. Do you want your writing to sound colorful or pompous? Hop over to Chris Graham’s blog for the details…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. yMine is ;Roget’s International Thesaurus’ – though I could do with an updated version, mine is not only old it is getting fragile, decrepit, worn, brittle, delicate . . . . . . .

    Liked by 2 people

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