The thesaurus gets a bad rap. School teachers forbid it and Stephen King is a famous opponent. In his first novel Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer wrote the bad English of Ukrainian character Alex by using a thesaurus to change small, ordinary words into big, ill-fitting ones. The compounded effect is horrifying and hilarious. (“I am burdened to recite my good appearance,” Alex writes. “My eyes are blue and resplendent.”)
It’s also a perfect example of how not to use a thesaurus – deciding that a word you have used is too small and not impressive enough, and selecting another via finger jabbing or choosing the longest and grandest. Beware: every synonym is not created equal. Most words have subtle differences of meaning, and sometimes they can even mean wildly different things in different contexts. This method will usually make you sound like you’re trying to be clever, but in reality you’ll just sound silly.
So what is a thesaurus good for? And how can you use it to your advantage when writing content?
The thesaurus is the tool you need for tip-of-the-tongue moments. When you know the perfect word for what you’re trying to express is there in the recesses of your mind, but it’s not quite ready to roll off your tongue. If I find myself paused mid-sentence grasping at the air for the word I know exists but can’t remember, a quick stop at an online thesaurus will usually get me what I’m looking for, and I can then promptly get back to writing. (That’s the other thing – nowadays, using a thesaurus is a lot less disruptive to the writing process than it might have been when you had to flip through a heavy book.)
My other tip is to never use a word you haven’t seen or heard before. Seeing a word in use helps you to understand its meaning better. Even if you look the word up in the dictionary, if it’s not one you’ve come across regularly, it’s very likely you won’t know how to use it properly. It might even mean it’s an outdated word that’s no longer in common usage, making you sound stuffy and out of touch. You don’t want that.
Used smartly and sparingly, the thesaurus can keep you working productively by helping you out of tough spots. It can even help you build your vocabulary. Just make sure you’re 100% certain you know what you’re saying before you say it.