Monday, November 1, 2010

Don’t Bore Us with the Thesaurus

Have you ever read a piece of prose that’s so chock full of adjectives you suspect the writer may have overdosed on the thesaurus? Many established writers warn against dependence on the thesaurus for this reason.

For me the thesaurus is a tool like any other. I once spent ten minutes searching through the thesaurus because I’d forgotten the word ‘optional’. Times like those I hang my head in shame and wonder why I call myself a writer. But then I recall even the greatest chefs, musicians, and writers need tools to perfect their art.

The thesaurus is handy when the brain begins to fry. It reminds me of the words I need to reach for – the words that hang on the edge of consciousness and tease the flailing mind.

The thesaurus can, however, become a crutch when a writer lacks confidence to find their own words and their own phrases. It can also make a writer grow lazy as they depend more on the reference book. They may accept a suggested word, but it may not be the right word. Sometimes we need more than a single word. Sometimes we have to work for the right phrase, the right description.

And don’t forget, the thesaurus can be used in other ways as well. If you own a hardcopy version then it can trigger ideas for characters and stories through random page selection. It can squash a bug crawling across your desk. You can even balance it on your head to improve posture.

How often do you refer to a thesaurus? What are some ways you use the thesaurus? What are some other references you use when writing?

P.S. Good luck to those starting NaNoWriMo today!!! Exciting times!

42 comments:

  1. A thesaurus works really well for school papers, when you find you are using the same word too many times, that when I find it best to use this handy tool. That's all I mainly use it for though. I prefer online ones, but i have a pretty good size one on my bookshelf too just in case.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Loved how your title sounded when I read it alound, Lynda! I agree, the thesaurus is a cool which should be used in moderation.

    And just for grins and giggles, remember this. Those who say, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me," are ten times more likely to get hit by a dictionary flying at them at over 100 mph.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I use it on occasion during edits if I find I've repeated a word. If I can't find the right replacement, I reword the entire sentence (or more) rather than repeat or use something that doesn't really fit.

    ReplyDelete
  4. A Thesaraus allows me to open my mind when it's clouded. I don't normally need it, and days that I feel I refer to it too often I tell myself a wrting break for a reading break would be nice :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Summer, yes exactly it's great for breaking the repeating word chain. I also prefer online thesaurus. The hardcopy versions drive me nuts flipping from page to page.

    Mr Jeffrey, you made me laugh. Gotta watch out for those flying dictionaries! ;)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Alex, it's a good approach: rather than settling, you reword the whole sentence.

    Jen, yes! A writing break is important. I think I'll need a lot of those during NaNo (even if they are short breaks).

    ReplyDelete
  7. admittedly, my thesaurus is handy, but so is my big, fat, old American Heritage Dictionary and my new Webster's, a few foreign language dictionaries and my book of names. The rest of the books all have to do with my current wip. I hope if I use too many adjectives one of my crit partners will tell me.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'll take out a thesaurus a couple of times during the course of writing a novel but I don't keep it constantly open at my side. That would be a mistake. It's better to challenge the mind to come up with different ways to describe things than to go with obvious solutions from a thesaurus.

    Jai

    ReplyDelete
  9. I tend to use a thesaurus when the word I really want is at the tip of my tongue but I can't quite get it out...then I look up a similar word and hope the one I really want is there. :D

    ReplyDelete
  10. it's interesting that most other languages don't have thesauruses or vocabularies with synonyms. So, imagine all the writers who do not write in English and who can't use so many helpful books. What do they do? They just read a lot, read tirelessly, read other people's books, read classics and keep their language active and rich. Using thesauruses and similar help is kinda like cheating :))

    ReplyDelete
  11. mshatch, sounds like you are prepared :)

    Jai, absolutely...it IS better to challenge the mind. It's kind of like exercise for the mind to keep it fit and healthy :)

    ReplyDelete
  12. Leigh, yep, that's generally the only time I use it. It's a reminder only.

    Dez, I didn't know that other languages don't have thesauruses. And yes, I really do think it's important to broarden our knowledge and language skills by reading a range of books... But I don't mind the occasional cheat ;)

    ReplyDelete
  13. I use the thesaurus during revisions if I find I've quirked back to the same word over and over. But I agree, it hate it when I read a book with nothing but million dollar words and no soul.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I don't really use the thesaurus ever. I used to play with it when I was bored and a kid (I'm messed, I know). I remember a lot of words and I was really curious about always asking people about any word they said I didn't know... Sometimes... my head is like a thesaurus. I dno... I've just never felt the need to use it. But I really like this post and how it looks at both the advantages and disadvantages.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Melissa G, 'quirked back'...I like that.

    Melissa, you're lucky not to need the thesaurus. I'm forever forgetting basic words.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I find there are times when a particular word sticks in my head and it isn't quite right but I can't get away from it. That's when I look it up and generally end up changing the sentence or more.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Mary, yep, that sounds familiar ;)

    ReplyDelete
  18. I use it to increase my vocabulary or when I find myself repeating the same word over and over and over!! LOL

    ReplyDelete
  19. Terri, yep, that's definitely a good use for it :)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Back in my middle school days, I think my friends and I used to look up naughty words in the Thesaurus. They keep the book pretty clean; we never found much of anything.

    Now, it is a great tool when I can't think of "the exact right word."

    ReplyDelete
  21. What's even worse than depenence on the Thesauras is inconsistent dependence. I once came across a piece of writing that was fairly simplistic and then all of the sudden - there were all sorts of big, intimidating words all over the place! Dead giveaway... :)

    I use it when I notice that I've been using the same descriptive words over and over again and need to switch things up. I also use it just to check my own idea of what I think a word means. I'd hate to use a word the wrong way...

    ReplyDelete
  22. Kristal, lol, find the naughty word game. I think I may have played that game when I was young. ;)

    Donea, yep consistency is important. When a style changes suddenly then it stands out in a bad way.

    Emma, thanks for the follow. I'm an old follower of yours.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I've never used a real one but every once a while I use the one on Word, usually to find a better verb.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Laura, I've never used the one on Word. Dictionary.com is good and so is OneLook.com

    ReplyDelete
  25. I don't use one much, but like Laura P, I use the one in Word cuz it's much handier! Just highlight the word and hit Thesaurus (under Research in W2007). Helps me if the word I want is elusive--or if, like other people have mentioned, I've been using one word too much.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I use a thesaurus but only after I finish the MS and am looking for variety to replace redundant words. That's about it. Its like a last resort for me.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Sometimes I use it to look at the verb choices for a noun and the noun choices for a verb just to expand my thinking, or my ways of looking at words.

    ReplyDelete
  28. I use one occasionally. It's helpful just to get my brain spinning.

    ReplyDelete
  29. I use it when I've been reapeating a word, or when I have a brain fart and can't think of the word I want - only its meaning.

    Sometimes when searching for an original word for something I'll use it for that, but usually I use word origin for that. If I don't find the right 'sound', I'll use the thesaurus to research similar words.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Carol, I'll have to try the Word one. Back in the dark ages when Word was relatively new I vaguely recall trying it but found it wasn't extensive enough. I bet they've improved it a lot since then ;)

    Stephen, I'm guessing you are a fast first draft writer then. Stopping to look up words slows down the flow doesn't it.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Paul, that's a good use for it.

    Susan, usually I need something to stop the brain spinning ;) But yes, I know what you mean :)

    M Pax, ah yes, the dreaded repeated word...and worse! the dreaded brain freeze.

    ReplyDelete
  32. I use the thesaurus only if I'm searching the perfect word but I don't go there to add silly words that I wouldn't normally use. I think they are often overdone.

    CD

    ReplyDelete
  33. I use it when I do a crossword puzzle, or when I feel I am repeating the same word several times.

    Love the idea of using it to improve my posture. :)

    Btw..how is your NaNo going?

    ReplyDelete
  34. Clarissa, yes exactly, used with caution, the thesaurus is a helpful tool.

    Rachna, isn't using it for a crossword puzzle cheating? ;)

    NaNo is going great! I've written 5100 words in two days so I'm really pleased. AND I'm loving the story.

    ReplyDelete
  35. I use the thesaurus mostly for words I overuse. When I find myself wanting to use a particular word I know I've already used enough, I use the electronic thesaurus to come up with an alternative.

    ReplyDelete
  36. I use a thesaurus in conjection with a dictionary in order to find good words, the best words, and different words that have the correct meaning that I'm looking for.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

    ReplyDelete
  37. I love my thesaurus, it makes my writing all the richer, though I agree it is easy to cram in the adjectives. I am learning to edit and polish now though :O)

    ReplyDelete
  38. Alexia, I love the electronic version. It's so easy.

    Arlee, yes absolutely.

    Madeleine, it all takes time and thought :)

    ReplyDelete
  39. I use a thesaurus most when I'm working on rhyming texts, actually - when I know what sense I want to convey, but I need a word or phrase that will fit the meter. (And online thesauruses - thesauri? - often offer phrases as well as single words, which is really helpful!)

    ReplyDelete
  40. I used to use a thesaurus in my first year of University, where I'd try to make my work sound more academic (how wrong I was!) I do get annoyed when I read fiction that seems like it was put through a thesaurus and spat back out chock full of weird words (especially in fantasy). I tend to only use the thesaurus when I feel like I've used the same kind of word twice on the same page, so it has the same feel but doesn't look like I have an extremely limited vocabulary :P

    ReplyDelete
  41. Ishta, yes, they are helpful that way for sure.

    Jamie, yep, using words for the sake of words isn't good. It's best to keep it simple (and not so repetitive) ;)

    ReplyDelete

I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks for leaving a comment.