The Infamous Thesaurus Rex: 5 Ways to Wield Its Awesome Power

Thesaurus RexThesaurus. There, I said it. I know Stephen King (famous thesaurus disparager) is somewhere headdesking even as I type, but I am willing to own—even celebrate—that I use a thesaurus. With regularity, in fact. And I know I’m not the only one.

There is for sure a wrong way to use a thesaurus, I’m not denying that. Writing a story is not about getting a 1600 on your SATs. Dialogue tags are meant to clear up who’s saying what, not to convey how a particular thing is being said. And adverbs shouldn’t even be present, let alone thesaurusized.

But a thesaurus used in a healthy, non-co-dependent way can be a life-saver. Here are a few ways that I wield Roget’s controversial tome.

Say It, Don’t Spray It
Sometimes my brain is on overdrive, and sometimes it’s sputtering along on empty. On those days when I know the vocabulary is in there, but everything comes out sounding like a twelve-year-old boy taunting his red-headed step-cousin about her misplaced spit, I open my trusty Thesaurus widget to find the word that I know means something along the lines of “rude” but has a shade of “immature and irritating” about it. I mean, really—it’s not the girl’s fault she has to wear headgear.

Love the One You’re With
I love my characters. I couldn’t love them any more than if they were real people. What am I saying? Of course, they’re real people. They have their own opinions, their own motivations, their own flaws, and most importantly to this discussion, their own way of saying things. I’ll be honest. I often don’t know how my characters would say a certain thing until I see it. I know what they’re trying to get across, but I might be a bit fuzzy on word choice until I break open the thesaurus and start trying words on my character like clothes on a Barbie. It’s important to me that I be true to my characters’ unique voices, and nothing defines voice better than word choice.

Houston, We Have a Problem
I’ve found that understatement is a valuable tool in storytelling, especially when used in particularly comic or tense situations. But there’s intentional understatement and then there’s boring. Fixing the boring is what I tend to use the thesaurus for the most during the revision process. This isn’t to say that I take a plain-spoken word and replace it with a fancy word at a one-to-one ratio. That just makes the prose boring AND annoying. Instead, I use other tricks to make the language more vibrant—such as replacing a descriptor here or there with a simile or metaphor, changing telling paragraphs to showing dialogue, and playing with sentence rhythm—and then I find words in the thesaurus to replace a stale word or two in those devices to add an additional layer of sparkle.

Keep Your “Pedantic” Close But Your “Exacting” Closer
On the flip side of the coin, I often find myself in the odd position of using a thesaurus to find the simpler version of what I’m trying to say. Especially “erudite.” For some reason, I can think of “erudite” but not clever. Now I know my teenage protagonist wouldn’t be caught dead thinking “erudite,” and I’ve got better things to do than sit here till I think of the right word. Cue thesaurus.

Escape the Cliche Loop
Let’s face it. There are only so many emotions a human being can experience. Luckily, there is an infinite way of expressing those emotions in words. But sometimes my wheels get stuck in the “she rolled her eyes” or “he shrugged a shoulder” rut. That’s where THIS little jewel comes in: the Bookshelf Muse’s Emotion Thesaurus. Note that there’s a handy Setting Thesaurus as well.

Here are some other awesome blog entries about thesauri and other word-choice tools:
To Thesaurus Or Not To Thesaurus
Stuck for a Word
Resource Roundup Part 1 – Finding the Right Word

Do you use a thesaurus? If so, how does it help you? Does it ever hinder you, and if so, how?

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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17 Responses to The Infamous Thesaurus Rex: 5 Ways to Wield Its Awesome Power

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