Writing Mini-Lessons: How a Thesaurus Can Help

A thesaurus can be an excellent tool for enhancing your writing. It can provide valuable assistance in inspiring diction that is more vivid, sensory, and imageful. It can allow you to cut adverbs and adjectives that may clutter your drafts, providing language that is more direct and active. So a thesaurus can help you, as a writer, produce stronger, clearer language. However, be careful. A thesaurus can also lead a writer to language that’s weak, pompous, or obscure.

You consult a dictionary when you already know a word, but you require a spelling or a definition. You consult a thesaurus when you know the definition, at least generally, and you need a new or more specific word for it. Read these suggestions for when to use a thesaurus:

When to Use a Thesaurus

Please note that using a thesaurus is to enrich your writing, not to find obscure multisyllabic words. Please never use a word from the thesaurus when you’re not one hundred percent clear on and comfortable with its meaning. The language of good writing is simple, direct, imageful, and active. When using a thesaurus, consider E.B. White’s advice to writers, when he states that it’s "nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color." Pay attention to verbs, shooting for verbs that are imageful and sensory; watch out for limp, colorless verbs.

However, when you are drafting and polishing, beware of the verbs below. They are verbs that don’t get the job done. You can’t see them, feel them, hear them, taste them. They’re not precise. They don’t activate the writing.

Verbs to Beware Of:

Forms of:

1. come

2. do

3. get

4. give

5. go

6. have

7. like

8. make

9. take

10. to be (is, are, was, were, etc.)

A thesaurus can help you activate a sentence. Look at Jimmy’s thesaurus work below to see how using a thesaurus to help with word choice can make writing come alive.

Jimmy’s Thesaurus Work:

Jimmy’s Draft Sentence:

I had the snake in my hands.

HAVE—V. include, accommodate, teem with (CONTAINER); possess, occupy, own (HOLD).

HOLD—N. hold, control, possession, retention, occupancy, occupation, tenure, ownership, reception, maintenance; tenacity, pertinacity.

        grip, grasp, purchase, clutch, clasp, clench; seizure, suspension, wring.

        gripping or holding device: brace, vise, grip, clamp, grippers, clutch, cradle, net, suspensory; clasp, pin, safety pin, diaper pin, snap, hook; pincers or pinchers, nippers, pliers, tweezers, forceps; Stillson wrench, monkey wrench, lug wrench.

         handle, hilt, hold, shaft, grip, lug, grasp, butt, stock, shank, crop, haft, helve, stele, withe, brace, snath, snead, bail, crank, ear, knob, knocker.

         V. hold, have, possess, occupy, own, retain, hold back, withhold, contain, receive, keep, maintain, keep hold of; hold fast, hold on, cling to, cherish, nourish.

        grasp, seize, grip, clutch, clasp, clench; brace, vise; wring.

        hug, embrace, cuddle, cradle, clinch, grapple, wrap one’s arms around, enfold.

        Adj. holding, etc. (see Verbs); possessive, retentive, tenacious, pertinacious, viselike; tenable, retainable.



Jimmy’s Final Sentence:

I clutched the snake in my tiny fists.

Here is another example of thesaurus consultation.

Annie’s Poem Revisions:

Annie’s Draft:

Within a few traps

the rain was streaming from the sky,

meeting harshly with our bowed heads.

Annie’s Revision:

Within a few traps

the rain was streaming from the sky,

lashing harshly on our bowed heads.

Annie’s Final:

Within a few traps

the rain was streaming from the sky,

lashing on our bowed heads.

If you turn to a thesaurus for help, but come up empty, one strategy is to try another synonym. Look for a word closer in meaning to what’s actually happening in your writing. If you can’t think of one, ask me or another student for help.

Here’s one final piece to see how a student used a thesaurus, sweating diction, to create word pictures of herself at her backyard pond throughout the four seasons. Note especially the verbs.

The Pond

In winter

I trudge down to the pond.

Bundled up in my winter protection,

I carry a bag stuffed with extra mittens and socks.

I perch on the icy dock that’s halfway buried in snow,

pull on my skates,

and glide onto the clean cold glass.

In spring

I skip down to the pond,

my fishing rod swung over my back.

I try to catch minnows—use leaves as bait

and daydream under the new sun.

In summer

I scamper down to the pond

with a towel wrapped around my body.

I stand at the edge of the dock

and it kills me

not knowing what lurks in the mysterious waters.

But I take a running jump into the cold glaze anyway.

It shatters, sending ripples everywhere.

In fall

I wander down to the pond.

It’s barren and deserted—

no skating, no swimming.

I gaze into the still water

and watch my pure reflection

as it changes every year from younger to older,

as the murky water harbors

the seasons of my childhood.

~ Marnie Briggs