Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Should a fiction writer use a thesaurus?

Basically, no, imo. A fiction writer should just know all those words and use the right word in the right sentence.

However, James Scott Bell has this take on the question, over at Kill Zone Blog.

Now, of course, we all have personal computers with a Dictionary/Thesaurus app. I use mine most often to find a synonym for something mundane, like walk. Sure, a character can walk into a room. That doesn’t do much for the reader. So I open my computer thesaurus and in five seconds find: stroll, saunter, amble, trudge, plod, dawdle, hike, tramp, tromp, slog, stomp, trek, march, stride, sashay, glide, troop, limp, stumble, and lurch.

And that is all very well, but you had better know the difference between a saunter and a sashay or you are going to mess up your scene.

Also — and I’m sure this isn’t an issue for Bell — but one of the hallmarks of amateur writing is the overuse of words like march and stride and sashay and so on when the character should, in all honesty, just be walking.

However! Having glared at the post and muttered Bah, humbug! under my breath, I will say, the synonym button in Word is actually sometimes useful. Not so much for finding synonyms for “walk,” but for getting to a word that is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite pull it up.

In that situation, you can type a word you know is not quite right, click on “synonyms,” pick a word that is still not right but closer, repeat a couple of times, and bingo! THERE is the word you were trying to recall that whole time.

So for me, the synonym button is helpful to jog my memory when the vocabulary part of my brain freezes up, rather than particularly useful in avoiding redundancy in word choices.

While we’re on the subject, “look,” is a place where synonyms both are and are not helpful. The problem here is that “look,” like “said,” is largely invisible, but that can easily lead to overusing the word.

She looked at him or He looked surprised are the sort of phrases that get used over and over. That’s hard to avoid. It’s true that you can try to describe a surprised person — his eyes widened and so on — but quite a bit o the time, it’s simpler and quicker to say He looked surprised and then move on briskly, without giving the reader time to dwell on that sentence.

But let’s pull up a synonym generator and take a look. Okay, here are synonyms for “look” as a verb:

glance, gaze, stare, gape, peer, fix one’s gaze, focus, peep, peek, take a look, watch, examine, study, inspect, scan, scrutinize, survey, check, contemplate, consider, see, observe, view, regard, pay attention to, take note of, mark, check out, glimpse, behold, spot, spy, lay one’s eyes on, catch sight of, eye, take in, ogle

A small number of those words are also basically invisible. “Glance” and “gaze” are both good if you don’t want to draw the reader’s attention. They also aren’t synonyms: a glance is fleeting and a glaze longer, which is why the writer ought to know both words and not mistake one for the other.

Many of these so-called synonyms do mean something other than “look” and/or do call attention to themselves. Saying, “She gaped at him” is completely different from “She looked at him.” Gape is never invisible; it’s the sort of word that always draws attention to itself and always creates a specific sort of visual impression, provided the reader is the kind of reader who visualizes the scene. I don’t think I have ever in my life used “gape.” I do visualize scenes and I don’t like the visual effect of this word.

Saying, “She contemplated him for a long moment,” is different in another way. Saying, “She paused for a long moment of contemplation,” or something like that, and now we are into a strikingly different style.

One more note on this topic:

Bell says:  I was writing a scene with a drug kingpin and his pet monkey. The monkey keeps shrieking. But I didn’t want to use that same word over and over. So I popped open the thesaurus and immediately found: scream, screech, squeal, squawk, roar, howl, shout, yelp. Just what I needed. I used five of them.

And my instant reaction was: five, really? Because I only see three words in that list that seem suitable for, say, a Capuchin monkey. (Just a reasonable guess about the most likely kind of monkey.) Capuchins don’t roar, howl or shout, and I’m not crazy about squawk or yelp either.

By the way, speaking of roaring monkeys, when I was in Venezuela listening to howler monkeys, I once spent some time trying to come up with ways to describe the sound they make. The best I could do was “Like a cross between lions roaring and power saws, cranked up to eleven.” That is not a sound I know how to capture in one word.

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9 Comments Should a fiction writer use a thesaurus?

  1. Elaine T

    This got me to pull out my old style Roget’s. Main heading; vision. subsection #12 verbs opening with “see, behold, observe, view”… Don’t get to ‘look’ until sub #13 look, peer, have a look… It’s better for getting across the connotations of the various synonyms than the online list format thesaureses are.

  2. Kim Aippersbach

    I love my Roget’s thesaurus! It doesn’t just give me words, it refines my thinking, it illustrates the subtle distinctions between words, it organizes meaning in ways that help me understand better what I mean.

    Online thesauruses are mostly useless, and dangerous for exactly the reasons you mention.

  3. Kathryn McConaughy

    I once bought a book published through a major publisher which constantly used the tag “he startled and…”
    Quite aside from the fact that I’m not convinced this is an accepted verb (isn’t it “he started”? Or is that an archaism?) it was so noticeable that I started crossing it out and supplying a synonym. It just bothered me too much.

  4. Mary Catelli

    Thesauruses are fine as long as you remember that they hate you and want you to look like an idiot.

  5. Rachel

    I enjoy the phrase “they hate you and want you to look like an idiot.” That applies to online thesauruses much more than Roget’s, of course! I used to like looking through my Roget’s thesaurus, though granted, I haven’t pulled it out in years.

    It might be fun to fill out “Online ________ are mostly useless and dangerous because they hate you and want you to look like an idiot” with various suitable items. What else could go in that blank? I have a couple.

    a) Math textbooks. I’ve been stunned at how hard to use digital versions of math textbooks can be.
    b) Dog breed preference quizzes. These are absolutely useless and also quite dangerous. It can be entertaining to fill them out as honestly and thoroughly as possible and see what utterly unsuitable breeds they recommend.
    c) Cookbooks. You can look up a quick recipe for, oh, lamb in plum sauce, say, which can be helpful. But you will never get the historical and geographical context of foods or recipes by just looking at online recipes. I would never in a million years discard my beautiful cookbooks, such as Seductions of Rice or Florence Lin’s Complete Book of Chinese Noodles, Dumplings, and Breads even though I seldom cook out of those books these days.

  6. Elaine T

    Oh, that reminds me, I picked up a recipe from a blogger who got it out of a cookbook that sounds much more interesting than most: Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook by Anya bon Bremzen and John Welchman. “It includes recipes and stories from the Baltic coast as far east as Central Asia. it also has stories about the Russian Empire, and Soviet Russia.”

    The recipe was called Persian Chicken and used walnuts and pomogranate. I swap out the walnuts for pecans.

  7. Mary Beth

    I like an online thesaurus solely for the purpose you mentioned: there’s a word lurking in the back of my brain but I can’t drag it out on my own! It’s the best tool I’ve found for this, short of asking my wife. ;)

    Similarly, if I ever get to a position in life when I could responsibly bring a dog into my life, I’m asking YOU for breed recommendations, not those online quizzes!

  8. Rachel

    Mary Beth, I’m glad someone else has the same kind of “… the word is … let me see … um …” moments that I do!

    And yes, yes, anyone who wants to know what specific breeds are like and which ones would more likely suit them should CERTAINLY ask me!

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