Positively Editorial

Step Away From the Thesaurus

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess at some point, you’ve felt your writing didn’t sound smart enough. You thought your words were too simple, making your ideas sound stupid and unlikely to get you that client’s approval or an A on your essay. Clearly, you need big words if you’re going to impress anyone, and with electronic thesauruses (thesauri?), it’s simple! Just pick out the smartest-sounding synonym and you’re golden, right?


I’ll let Joey demonstrate the obvious problem with this approach:


If you can’t watch the video, here’s the important bit:

Monica: It doesn’t make any sense.
Joey: Of course it does. It’s smart! I used a thesaurus!
Chandler: On every word?
Joey: Yep.
Monica: All right, what was this sentence, originally?
Joey: Oh. “They’re warm, nice people with big hearts.”
Chandler: And that became, “They’re humid, pre-possessing homosapiens with full-sized aortic pumps?”

Which version of Joey’s sentence sounds real? Obviously, it’s the first one. Even if he’d only used the thesaurus on one or two words, they would still stick out like a raptor in a chicken yard. And just like Monica and Chandler, your readers will notice when you don’t sound like you.

So how can you sound smart? Just use the words you know while being clear and direct. Demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about by being able to explain your topic with words that are easy to understand. Little words are totally okay! You’re communicating an idea, not trying to win a pretentious vocabulary competition or the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. If your idea is good and you communicate it well, you’ll sound smart.


But Lisa! What about…

Yes, you can still use a thesaurus if you know what you’re doing. It’s a tool, and it can be used for good or for creating great disasters in the kitchen just like any other tool. There are two situations I recommend using one for. First, when you’ve got a paragraph full of one word repeated, maybe see if there’s another way to phrase it. My own weakness is “also,” so I use the thesaurus to remind myself such handy phrases as “in addition,” “as well as,” and “furthermore” exist. I know what all of these words mean and how to use them, so they don’t stick out when I’m writing – though I keep “furthermore” on reserve for the slightly more pretentious of my works.

The second situation I fully recommend using a thesaurus for is when you know a word exists that conveys the meaning you want, but you can’t for the life of you remember exactly what it is or how it’s spelled. I once spent half an hour at the History Center of San Luis Obispo trying to remember “that word that means something’s like an allegory or sort of an accepted modern-myth fact?” and flubbing my pronunciation because it’d been a while since I’d seen it in print.

The best my brain could come up with was “acropical…?” Not very helpful. Both the young lady at the front desk and the exhibit manager were stumped. Eventually the manager summoned an English professor from the basement who came up with the correct answer of “apocryphal,” but if we’d just hit thesaurus.com for synonyms to “allegorical” we would have found it in the fourth category down. (Incidentally, spending time in a museum where they keep English professors in the basement in case of word emergencies is pretty cool if you’re of a certain mental persuasion.)


In conclusion, I leave you with this bit of wisdom from modern-day philosopher Zach Weinersmith. Great writing is when your subject matter is complex but your sentences are easy to understand.

Aim for great

Remember this when you’re worried your words might be too easy to understand.


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