Will using a thesaurus help you to write better?

Well, yes and no. Yes, if you are using it to help bring greater accuracy and clarity to your writing—and to phrase it elegantly while you’re doing it. No, if you are stuffing long words into your work just to impress and stun your readers!

Here are six things to remember before you pull out your thesaurus:

Synonyms are not identical in meaning:

Each word is a name for a person, place, thing, concept, emotion, action or the relationship they have with each other. A particular variety of a starchy tuber is called potato. You may have adjective attached to this name—large, russet, new—but a potato is still a potato, right? You have no other name for the wobbly vegetable.

Similarly, no two words mean the exact same thing. The synonyms in English are words that are similar in meaning but are not identical. No matter how close they are in meaning, they do retain a subtle difference. Even words that have long been considered interchangeable are not really so. Do be careful of this when you decide to use the thesaurus.

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

~ Mark Twain

A thesaurus can help to add depth to your writing:

The thesaurus is used after your first draft is ready. The structure and flow of your story, or the flow of thought in your essay, have been tweaked. It says what you wanted it to say. Now your focus is on improving readability, tightening up the work, adding depth and upping the language mellifluence. As a result, your writing becomes elegant. You want to use better-sounding words that communicate a deeper, more varied emotion. If the context is suitable, using a word like livid instead of the plain old angry, does bring in a deeper flavour. 

Steer Clear of Unknown Words:

This cannot be emphasized enough. When you replace a word with another, make sure you pick a word whose meaning and usage you are confident of and which fits the context. When the list of options is displayed, let it serve to remind you of the words you already know. Do not use a word you are not familiar with—unless you have researched it and understand all the nuances of its meaning thoroughly.

You could be replacing a word because the one you have used doesn’t sound right, or it is being repeated too often. Indiscriminately changing words with their loftier sounding synonyms—words you aren’t familiar with because you have never come across them before—is a sure recipe for disaster. You will probably end up using an inappropriate word and the insertion would not only look contrived but take the narrative off on a different tangent.

Don’t use a thesaurus only to impress your readers:

The purpose of using a thesaurus is to improve accuracy and elegance. It is not (and should not be) to try and impress your reader with difficult, esoteric cryptic confusing words. Some of your readers may ignore it. Some might even be impressed. But there will be some who would be positively annoyed. Once a reader gets peeved, that’s the beginning of the end of your relationship with them.

A fourth-grader was told to learn the meaning of the word pregnant and use it in a sentence. The dictionary said it meant carrying a child. The boy made a sentence with the word. He wrote:

The fireman went up the ladder and came down pregnant.

Not exactly the right usage, right? Before using a new word see it being used in a sentence and not rely on the dictionary meaning alone. Else, you might make the mistake this fourth grade kid made.

Simple words are often the best. They communicate efficiently. At times, efficiency is far more important than elegance – like when you are in the middle of a cliff-hanger of an action sequence.

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

~ Jack Kerouac

An unsuitable word can dilute your work:

In addition to peeving off the discerning reader, you might end up saying something you never meant at all! If your protagonist is petrified and you call him afraid you will have detracted several notches from his fear. Of if you describe something as magnificent when a milder wonderful would have suited better, you have added exaggeration to no purpose. Good writing is when you manage to convey the exact nuance you wanted to—neither an ounce less, nor more. Why take away the sheen of your creation by presenting a pale imitation or a gaudy hyperbole of your treasures?

By all means, use the thesaurus extensively—in fact, you should. It was kind of Microsoft to make it simple for you by including a thesaurus with their word processor. You need to do nothing but left-click on a word and invoke the thesaurus. You’ll have all your choices laid out for you. Or you could use one of the many competent thesauruses available online.

Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.

~ William Faulkner

Read other writers to improve your vocabulary:

If you use the thesaurus because you want to improve your vocabulary, you can’t do better than to read it being used by another writer. The contextual usage would give you a fuller meaning than could have been garnered from a dictionary definition. To expand your vocabulary then, read extensively.

Do you use the thesaurus often when writing? Do share!