As with chocolate brownies, moderation and discipline is the key when using a thesaurus. I know there are writers giving tips everywhere saying that the thesaurus should never be cracked, but I disagree.
First, you can learn a lot from a thesaurus on the expand-your-vocabulary horizon. However, the thesaurus should be an editing tool more than a writing tool. Write the story using words you absolutely know. If there are words you use that you are not one hundred percent certain about, look up their synonyms in a thesaurus first, to give you context. But then, look up the specific definitions for the word and its synonyms in a dictionary to be certain. Even then, if you look up the synonym you plan to use, and the definition is the less common one, chances are it might not be correct in your story.
For example, the matriarch in my fictitious town of Owl's Nest is a witch, and I wanted to find synonyms for the word witch because it comes up in my stories a lot.
Witch synonyms include: enchantress, sorceress, magician, necromancer, occultist.
Okay, some of these apply some of the time, but not in the context I use them. If I'm talking about a white witch casting a protection circle, sorceress might apply, but magician would be wrong. And necromancer doesn't apply at all since it is associated with black art and not white witches.
Writers need to be careful about that when using a thesaurus.
My rules for the thesaurus are:
- Never use the thesaurus to find bigger words to sound smarter. Most of the time you just appear smug and give readers the opening to snort with derision when they find out you used the big, fancy words incorrectly after all. Even if the words are used correctly, nobody likes a show-off.
- Use the thesaurus to replace redundant or overused words – and know the precise meaning of every word you choose before placing it in your manuscript. Preferably use the simplest synonyms listed because lesser known words are distractions for readers. You're writing fiction, not primers.
- Use the thesaurus to find the exact word that's on the tip of your tongue. You know the feeling. You're writing away and come to a scene and there's a word – you can't think of it, dammit – you want to use because it would be just right. Everything else is wrong. Chances are if you look up the wrong word closest in meaning to the one you're trying to think of, the correct word will be shining in the list of synonyms there in your thesaurus.
Through the years I've read many books of writing tips and how-tos from authors I respect and admire, and I'm always thrilled to know that I share their writing practices. Thesaurus use is a divided issue – I hope you found my two-cents worth helpful.