More than once, I’ve come across the suggestion that writers shouldn’t use a thesaurus, that they should keep their words simple and avoid “fancy” language. In my opinion, that’s nonsense.
One of the things I love most about the English language is its nuances. A character can walk, stroll, strut, saunter, march, amble, wander, mosey, stride, pace, swagger, stalk . . . and the list goes on, with each word painting a different picture. Because that’s what a well-chosen word can do, paint a vivid picture.
Think of your thesaurus as an artist’s paintbrush. Use it to pick up as much or as little color as you need to create the image you want your readers to see. Be precise. Be creative. Explore the language and have fun with it. Beyond the obvious benefit of increasing your vocabulary, you’ll reduce repetition in your story and, if you’re like me, gain intense satisfaction in finding the perfect word.
A few words of caution, however. Be careful that you don’t get carried away and start slapping too many colors onto your painting, especially the more unusual ones. If you find the perfect word but it’s not in common use, restrict it to one or two appearances in your manuscript. Any more than that will catch a reader’s attention, and not in a good way. Also, don’t limit yourself to the thesaurus in your Word program. While it’s a good start, and better than nothing, treat yourself to a full-sized version such as Roget’s International Thesaurus where you’ll find words you’d forgotten you ever knew and a whole lot more you’ll want to know.
As an aside, a thesaurus can be just plain fun to peruse. Case in point: when my twin daughters were in Grade 3, they hit a stage of sibling rivalry that was slowly driving me mad. I was tired of listening to them hurl the same insults at one another ad nauseum, and my efforts to stop them from doing so had failed. Miserably. In a moment of parental ingenuity, I told them that they could insult one another all they wanted (not what they expected their mother to say) on one condition: they had to find new words for doing so.
I armed them each with a pocket thesaurus, taught them how to use it, and left them to battle it out. The results were brilliant. Apart from the fight I’d interrupted dissolving into hilarity, the girls learned to use a wonderful new tool years before their peers, their vocabularies exploded, and I no longer had to listen to the same tired arguments over and over again. For years after, the new game of one-upmanship in the house centered around who could come up with the most creative insult, defusing more than one argument in the process. My favorite? Mammoth mandibles . . . also known as big mouth.
How about you? If you’re a writer, do you use a thesaurus? If you’re a reader, do you wish more writers did so?