The Synonym Debate
At secondary school, teachers often encourage students to use a thesaurus to find more interesting options for their creative writing and expand their vocabulary. If you study the craft at university level, though, most tutors will tell you not to use one, to simply use the words that come naturally. Fiction should be true to the author’s voice, not striving for a preconceived – probably elitist – idea of good writing. While I agree with this, I often find myself pulling up the thesaurus – sometimes I find the word I’ve been looking for there, and other times it comes to me from the white space of the new tab. In this post, I will consider the pros and cons in an attempt to answer the question: should fiction writers use a thesaurus?
Reasons to use a thesaurus:
- You have a word on the tip of your tongue but can’t remember it.
Vocabulary naturally expands over time as we read and meet new people. Using a thesaurus can be seen as an unnatural, sped-up version of this process. That said, sometimes a word you’ve often heard but rarely used will be on its way into your front brain and you just need a little help summoning it. ‘Argh, it’s like hysterical but with less connotations – frantic, that’s the one!’
- You’ve repeated a word and want to find an alternative.
Author Meg Rosoff said, ‘As a person with the retentive mental capacity of a goldfish and a dislike of repetition, I frequently make use of the thesaurus.’ If you realise you’ve used the word break three sentences in a row (whether you have the mental capacity of a goldfish or not), it might be helpful to check for synonyms. Crush. Sever. Snap.
- You’re trying to be as precise as possible.
Precision of language is key to absorbing the reader in the protagonist’s world. Precise doesn’t mean fancy or obscure – it just means accurate, but if you’re writing about a topic you haven’t lived in, it may take a thesaurus to find the most suitable words.
- You want to find vocabulary that suits a character’s voice.
The main argument against thesaurus dabbling is that it’s best to use your authentic voice, but what if you’re writing from the close point-of-view of a character with a very different idiolect to you? In this case, it’s important to find the words this person would use. Of course, a thesaurus doesn’t sort synonyms into sections titled ‘over 50s posh British male’ or ‘working class Florida teenager’ so your first job is to do your research; read and listen to these voices. Once you have the voice firmly in your head, use a thesaurus and the right word will stand out to you.
Reasons not to use a thesaurus:
- You want to sound clever.
Do not try to sound clever. Do not try to find a longer word. Do not use a word you’ve never heard before or don’t fully understand! Aside from attempts at cleverness inevitably making your sentences clunky and awkward, the most memorable writing voices are always the most authentic. Meg Rosoff, known thesaurus user, has also said, ‘The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.’ If you’re looking up synonyms in an attempt to impress your reader, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re looking up synonyms to find the truest words for the most honest reflection of your thought life, you might be on to something.
- You want to use a less common word for the sake of it.
Stephen King famously said, ‘Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.’ Though this blog post clearly considers his stance extremist, he definitely has a point in that you should never strive for a better word; you should never let your desire to find a better word affect your momentum. And we really need to consider whether there’s such a thing as a ‘better word’. If the word you’ve used in your first draft is vague, inaccurate, or untrue to the character’s voice there might be a better word. If the word is simply ordinary, commonplace, or informal, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be the best word.
- You’re procrastinating when you should be getting your first draft down!
If the right word for something doesn’t come naturally, it’s much better to put a filler word down than to go straight for the thesaurus. Interrupting your writing session with frequent trips to the internet will mean you lose your flow – the prose might become awkward, not because you’re using unnatural word choices but because of the stopping and starting! Also, you might realise that the filler word – the one that instinctually came out of your head when you forced it to – is perfectly appropriate. Get the first draft down and reconsider language later.
Once you’ve decided to look up a word in the thesaurus, you have to decide whether your preferred synonym actually works in the sentence, in the voice of whoever is speaking or narrating, and in the genre and tone you’re writing in. I made this flowchart to help you decide if a potential synonym is the right choice or not.
All writers appreciate the beauty of words, and it’s natural to want as many different ones in your manuscript as possible. It’s just important that you use a thesaurus carefully and never try to sound like somebody else (except in dialogue or a close POV!). Writer Rumer Godden said, ‘A writer who has never explored words, who has never searched, seeded, sieved, sifted through his knowledge and memory … dictionaries, thesaurus, poems, favorite paragraphs, to find the right word, is like someone owning a gold mine who has never mined it.’ It’s good to be hungry for fresh vocabulary, but there is more than one place to find it. We need to look beyond the thesaurus as an easy option and absorb ourselves in a world of words: read more books by a diverse range of authors; befriend outside of our bubbles; listen on the bus.