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The Thesaurus: Your Best Friend and Worst Enemy

When I was in middle school, I thought the thesaurus was the best invention ever. I used them all the time when writing my angsty poetry for school, or when describing things in my creative writing, or when I wanted to sound extra smart in an essay. Then I went to high school. And I learned that sometimes, you should just say ‘green’, because if you write ‘viridian’ or ‘pea’ where it doesn’t really belong, you look silly, not smart. My thesaurus got a little bit of a break. Even more so during college, because a thesaurus wasn’t really needed for my major. But I still have the same badass thesaurus I’ve had for years. It’s huge and confusingly organized, and has millions of synonyms in it.

We are taught in school, though, to be creative with our descriptions, and the thesaurus feels like such a natural solution—especially when you start writing a novel and the thousand times instances of words like ‘look’ are taunting you. But if you’ve been around writing forums, it’s likely you’ve seen people advise against them. Personally, I hate the advice that you should never, ever use a thesaurus. It can be a wonderful tool. But, as with anything, it’s all about knowing when to stop.

If you’re using the same word too often, breaking out a thesaurus and replacing each with a somewhat related synonym isn’t actually taking care of the problem, even though it might feel that way. This is when your thesaurus can become a crutch. This is bad. It’s the kind of thing that will turn you into the crazy lady (or man) who clutches their thesaurus (or computer with access to an online thesaurus), hissing and foaming at the mouth, while concerned family and friends try to pry it from you.

When you use it right, though, the thesaurus is really handy. For me, most often, I use one when I’ve written a sentence, and one of the words I’ve used is almost but not quite what I want—I have that feeling like I know the word I want, but it’s waving at me from the tip of my brain and won’t come down. Scanning through synonyms usually leads me to discover the word I was actually looking for, or sometimes one that’s even better.

So use that thesaurus when you need to. Respect it. Love it—just not too much.
Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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  1. Interesting post. I find that students who feel like their writing can be improved simply by replacing one or two perfectly sensible (short) words with three or four archaic (long) words end up muddling their point completely. And it just feels foolish and fake. Truth and simplicity are far more powerful. That said, I love the thesaurus on my mac. I just use it sparingly!

  2. Ahhh, Kaitlin! I love the last paragraph, because I do this exact thing. There is a word, The Word, I want, and it's not quite coming to me so I check synonyms for the word I'm using in its place. But using it to definitely not cool.

  3. Excellent post! I was desperately attached to the thesaurus program that comes with MS word, but I've backed off a bit. Great advice. (:

  4. OMG! Hahaha! I had this amazing mental picture of someone hunched over their computer looking over there shoulder with shifty eyes, clutching a thesaurus to their chest. The pages are worn and dogeared, and an onlooking family appears concerned in the background... So funny.


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Item Reviewed: The Thesaurus: Your Best Friend and Worst Enemy Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward