As writers, we have loads of tools available to us. From traditional encyclopedias and dictionaries, to sites like Wikipedia and the Chicago Manual of Style, any information you could possibly want (and then some) can be found somewhere nearby. Some of us like it old-school and on paper, and others like a keyboard and a computer screen. But no matter what your preference, I think we can all agree that these resources are indispensable.
However, I’ve found that there’s one tool writers need to be careful when using, and that is our trusty consultant, the thesaurus. It’s great for those times when you’re stuck and can’t think of an appropriate word, or when you need a different way to describe the color of someone’s eyes. The trick is making it seem like you didn’t actually reference your thesaurus a million times.
I think, in this instance, an example would be best. We’ll use a paragraph from one of my old manuscripts to demonstrate:
The picture was taken in July of 2002 – the summer you moved in next door. I remember how excited I was when Mom told me there was a kid my age moving into the old brick house, the one Mr. Bukowski died in. Heart attack, they said. There hadn’t been kids in our neighborhood for years, and I thought you’d be a boy who’d want to watch spy movies with me, or play sports, or help me dig a hole to China. Turns out you were a girl, but at least you didn’t mind playing in the dirt all day. Since you had an older brother, you didn’t mind watching football with me, even though you liked soccer better. You even offered to be goalie. It was love at first sight.
Thesaurusized (Yup! Made that one up!):
The portrait was developed in July of 2002 – the summer you moved in next door. I recall how energized I was when Mom informed me there was an adolescent my age moving into the aged brick dwelling, the one Mr. Bukowski expired in. Heart attack, they said. There hadn’t been adolescents in our locality for decades, and I considered you’d be a lad who’d want to view espionage motion pictures with me, or play sports education, or help me excavate a fissure to China. Turns out you were a lass, but at least you didn’t mind playing in the muck all day. Since you had a grown-up brother, you didn’t mind surveying football with me, even though you were keen on soccer instead. You even offered to be goalie. It was adoration at first sight.
Obviously the second paragraph sounds ridiculous. But why? Probably because every word I could replace with something from the thesaurus, I did. Some of the choices don’t even make sense. The pacing is clunky and awkward, and you might have to stop and think once or twice about what’s actually being said. The whole thing is, essentially, a mess. Where the meanings in the original paragraph are clear, those in the thesaurusized version are confusing and really pull the reader from the story.
That’s the risk you run when over-using a thesaurus (or any resource, really). I’ve seen quite a number of submissions where it’s obvious that the author couldn’t think of a better word, and arbitrarily picked something out of the thesaurus. It seemed awkwardly placed, and I was forced to stop reading to consider why the author had chosen that word in the first place. The original meaning is lost, and in some cases, something entirely different is being said.
My advice? Read the sentence out loud. Like with dialogue, if you can read it out loud and it sounds fine, then you’re probably doing okay. But if you can read a sentence where you substituted a word from the thesaurus and it sounds awkward, then it most likely is. This method generally works for me, but in cases where I’m still not sure, I just ask whoever’s close by (try not to ask strangers, though. They might look at you funny). Trust me, friends aren’t afraid to tell you if a sentence sounds stupid.
So the next time you get stuck trying to find another way to describe chiseled abs, know that there’s a resource out there just waiting to help you! Just don’t let it get the best of you. Spicing up your language is great! Killing language is not.