A thesaurus. It is a wonderful tool but is easy to abuse. Commonly when editing, we see instances where an author has obviously used a thesaurus to replace a more common word with a less common word. More than anything, it is desirable to make your usage of a thesaurus as unintrusive as possible. The trick is to use it, but not use it in such a way that the readers know you are using it. A thesaurus, after all, is a tool that should be seen and not heard.
There are four major areas in which authors go wrong when using a thesaurus, and in order to use this tool properly, you’ll need to be aware of them.
#1 A thesaurus provides many possible word replacements, but not all of them will fit the context of the sentence. The meaning of a suggested word may be slightly different than the original word choice or could imply something unintended. Remember, some words are weaker by implication than others. You’ll want to pick a word that has equal standing with the one you are replacing. For example: to walk is much different than to stomp and there is a subtle but telling difference between jumping and leaping.
#2 Don’t replace a word you are familiar with with one that is unfamiliar, and don’t insert a word into a manuscript without first looking it up in a reputable dictionary. Be sure that the meaning of word chosen is appropriate. A thesaurus may list a word that sounds good but the meaning of which is archaic or inappropriate to the time period of the story. One such word is intercourse. In our modern times, this word typically is used to describe sex. But in the past, the word was used to describe conversation.
#3 Be careful with your word choices. Sometimes when a word is replaced, it ups the “grade level” of the story in such a way that it makes the word feel out of place. Make sure that the chosen words are consistent in style and readability and that it doesn’t stand out. It is jarring for a reader to be immersed in a story that is written simplistically and then have a big word dropped into the middle of it that they have to look up in the dictionary. Nothing says “I used a thesaurus here” more than that.
#4 If you are using a specific verb, adverb or adjective to such an extent that you have to resort to a thesaurus to solve the issue with repetitiveness, it is an indication that you are in a rut. Instead of reaching for the thesaurus, reach deep inside yourself and create a different action, description, or expression to give your story desired variety.
Thesauri are wonderful tools if used properly, but they have the potential to wreak havoc in your story. So be careful and be sure that the word you are using is appropriate.
Now back to writing. 🙂