Should a Fiction Writer Use a Thesaurus?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Dr. Peter Mark Roget

In college my roommates and I used to play a game with a dictionary. We cleverly called it “The Dictionary Game.” It was played with a big dictionary and scraps of paper. When it was your turn you’d look through the dictionary until you came across a word no one was familiar with. You wrote down the correct definition. The other players made up fake definitions that sounded right. The object was to fool as many people in the game as you could. You got a point if you guessed the correct definition. You got a point if somebody guessed your fake definition. The person who chose the word would get a point for every wrong guess.

I learned some cool words this way. The one that has stayed with me for over forty years is borborygmus. It means a “rumbling in the bowels caused by gas.”

This still cracks me up. It’s an onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like the thing it describes (although onomatopoeia itself is definitely not an onomatopoeia). And it makes for a great insult: You borborygmic swine! That’ll stop a bad guy in his tracks!

Which brings me to the subject of word choices. We have them. We have a whole passel of them (passel: a large number or amount). We even have a resource dedicated to word choices—the thesaurus (brainchild of Dr. Peter Mark Roget [1779 – 1869], a British physician and lexicographer).

Which invites (not begs) the question: should a fiction writer use a thesaurus? Mr. Stephen King has an oft-quoted opinion on this matter, as expressed in “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully—in Ten Minutes.” This article appears in the 1989 edition of The Writer’s Handbook, which I just happen to have on my shelf (you can also find King’s essay here).

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Well now! What are we to think … I mean, what are we to surmise, suppose, conjecture, conclude, and determine about Mr. King’s rule?

Some might call it bunk (balderdash, bosh, codswallop, twaddle). But the context of this quote comes under the heading: Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft. King wants you to get that story down, in flow. So much so that he has advice on another form of flow:

When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else but go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.

Ahem.

Anyway, I mostly agree with King. When you’re first setting down your tale, you should do so as expeditiously (swiftly, rapidly, efficiently) as possible. Don’t stop and go looking for a ten-dollar word when a buck or a fiver will do the job.

But I will offer a wee (used in the sense of little) exception. When King wrote his piece we were only in the beginnings of the personal computer age. At the time, King was using a dedicated word processor—a big (huge, bulky, Brobdingnagian) machine that did only one thing: saved your typing on floppy disks. Thesauruses (Thesauri?) were bound, paper books. It would take you precious flow-minutes to look up a word.

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.

Recently, I was working on my NIP (novella in progress). 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.

The alternative to using the thesaurus in this manner is that you sit at the keyboard for several minutes trying to come up with alternatives. But in this case “the hunt”— to use Mr. King’s term (expression, phrase, idiom, locution) — is faster and more efficient with a thesaurus app.

Is there another exception to Mr. King’s rule? I think so. I like to lightly edit my previous day’s work before jumping back into the first draft. When I do this I’ll sometimes find a spot where I wish to apply Mark Twain’s dictum: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” A minute or two here pays off in stylistic coin that will please your readers.

So I’m not ready to discard (jettison, scrap, chuck, dump, dish) my thesaurus.

What about you?

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25 thoughts on “Should a Fiction Writer Use a Thesaurus?

  1. I’ve always preferred the Roget version over the alphabetical/dictionary style, and have an old musty one from a library sale (though some of the word choices are similarly musty and dusty).
    And I remember thinking in the fifth grade (not often, mind you), “I don’t wanna read a story about some French guy and his dinosaur…” and so didn’t discover this resource for another year or so (I told you, I didn’t think all that often in fifth grade).

  2. I tend to repeat the same verbs and nouns in close proximity, so frequently use a thesaurus (in Scrivener or Word), not because I want an esoteric or clever synonym–because I want a different word.

  3. I love the dictionary game. In fact, I “play” it every morning on my Facebook Page. Dictionary.com has a “word of the day” and I post it on my page, but the rules say This is a game. No real definitions allowed. Be creative! Some of the responses are wonderful.
    I think vocabulary has to match the character. Even if I know a fancier word (which most of the time, I don’t), would my character know it? Would he or she use it in that context?
    But I totally agree that avoiding repetition is a good reason to hunt for synonyms. Ten dollar words slow the read for me.
    (And borborygmus wasn’t a new word for me. My doctor used it when he put the stethoscope to my belly. I pointed out that if I hadn’t had to fast before the appointment, things would have been a lot quieter.)

  4. My online thesaurus gets a healthy workout during the writing process. I refer to it often so I don’t keep repeating myself (your “walk” analogy). My thick hardcopy Roget’s is also very valuable during that process: my foot moves it back and forth over a wide floor duct inside the kneehole in my desk, right next to my hardcopy of the Chicago Manual of Style. They both keep me cool (frosty, chilled) in summer and warm (balmy, tepid, snug) in winter.

  5. Jiminy Cricket taught my generation how to spell e-n-c-y-c-l-o-p-e-i-a. I still can’t remember how to spell thesaurus. I have to look it up each time I use it–there, I just had to look it up again. Thesaurus is only of those words I have often thought about having tattooed on my wrist, along with occasion (two c’s? Or is it two s’s?), embarrassed, accommodate, broccoli and and pterodactyl.

    I will never have to have have borborygmus. I’d be too embarrassed to use it. (Yes, I had to look up embarrassed.) My borborygmusophobia, I guess you’d call it, comes from the time in freshman Latin when Kathy K, perhaps and probably the most beautiful girl in my freshman class of 500 or so, without warning, rhyme, reason, or desire to, cut a blue darter right in the middle of sum, es, est, sumus, estis, and sunt. Obviously the end result (okay, okay) of borborygmus. There are probably guys in the world who are still laughing at poor ole Red-Faced Kathy; she’s not to be confused with Cheerleader Kathy, or Math Champ Kathy. Or Cathy.

    So I vote for NOT ditching my thesaurus. Because I’ll never have to look up borborygmus for any reason.

  6. Fun and useful post, Jim.

    The thesaurus is esp. good for finding active verbs. A main character in my series has a bad temper and a James Earl Jones’ voice. He growls, roars, barks, thunders, hollers, booms, rumbles, etc.

    A gesture I repeat too much is “shrug”. Unfortunately, the thesaurus is scant help with that word.

    Borborygmus? I had to hit the speaker on the definition page to figure out how to pronounce it. My neighbor is a nurse who talks about “bowel sounds”. I’ll impress her with this new vocabulary addition.

  7. I use a thesaurus for the same, to find synonyms. I thought I found a shortcut by asking Siri, but she hasn’t fully grasped it yet. An AI for writers would be cool, though!

  8. I’m never letting go of my thesauri, digital or physical 🙂 It can be a struggle to come up with an appropriate synonym to avoid overusing a particular word. It can also be a struggle for me at time to come up with the right word. A thesaurus can be a life-saver with both, while editing. I’ve been guilty of looking up words while drafting, but, for me, it’s better to save that for revision.

    Thanks for a fun and helpful post!

  9. It’s funny where we evolved to – I use Grammarly AI for the first edit of my manuscript. AI doesn’t like repetitive words. I had a boat in my story, and it must have suggested fifty times that I change the word to ‘ship’ or ‘vessel’. No, a boat is not a ship, lol. I did some alternating between catamaran and boat, but that was the best I could do. I love a thesaurus, but a computer-driven one isn’t always right.

  10. I keep my thesaurus and dictionary beside my writing chair for all the reasons above, so I’m not ready to discard mine. And here’s another use for the thesaurus: As we get older, the synapses in our brain get a little corroded. The connections are not as quick. Many times I “know” a word I want to use, but can’t get the brain firing on all cylinders. The thesaurus is a good way to find that word we haven’t used for awhile. When we work on electrical connections, we sometime coat them with dielectric grease to prevent corrosion and keep the electrical current flowing. Yes, keep the thesaurus to improve the synapses and maintain the flow.

  11. I won’t be tossing mine any time soon! Very entertaining piece, JSB. Laughing like a hyena at codswallop in particular; must use it on my older bro, who likes to say “bunk” at every opportunity.

    Seriously, I love my thesaurus…it’s always available on my phone as I’m editing. And, of course, it’s part of a dictionary program that gives me a word-of-the-day every time I open it. Some of those are useful-I have a list of them in a file.

    However, I do think King was right to advise setting it aside while first drafting. (Not in the trash, though.) When my character is dictating a mile a minute, I can’t bring myself to hold up a finger and tell her to hang on just a sec while I look up a better word. I can hear the “Hmmpph!” (Well! Forget it, then! Be that picky! I’ll be back when you’re ready to work!) now as my office door slams behind her. 🙂

    • Deb, I just recently read an explanation (possible etymology, actually) for the word “codswhallop.” I follow London Mudlark, Lara Maiklem, who found a “codd” bottle in one of her recent foreshore scavengings. Much was said in the comments of that post about Codd-Hamilton company and their bottles with the marble inside. A person would hit the bottle on something in order to knock loose the marble seal. Pretty neat!

  12. I am not opposed to thesauri, but I can’t think of a single time when I’ve used one. My editor for the last 15 books or so has trained me away from shrugs, nods, sighs, moments, justs and a host of other writing reflexes, but it’s never occurred to me to seek help from reference books to fill in the blanks.

    When I was a kid, only two sources of reading material were allowed in the bathroom: a dictionary and a single-volume encyclopedia. To this day, I enjoy reading the dictionary.

    Note to Jim Porter: Jiminy Cricket got me beaten up in first grade. I had just transferred to a new school, and Miss Gooding asked if anyone knew how to spell “encyclopedia.” I raised my hand, was called upon, and I sang the spelling. Yeah. Sang it. Richard Goldsbury took exception in the playground and punched me. I have since killed him in three separate novels.

    • One of the great benefits of being a published author. I believe Harlan Ellison use the actual names of many of the bullies who tormented him as a kid. They died horribly.

    • When encyclopedia was one of our spelling words in 7th grade, the entire class was singing as they wrote. I can’t type it now without the tune playing in my head. Which means I type to that rhythm.

  13. I’m extremely guilty of looking for the precise word during the first draft — chalk it up to my detail-oriented personality. (I was told to quit using “anal” in polite society.) So for me, a thesaurus is a must. Mostly I use the one on Word, but I also use my hardbound Roget’s that I bought in 1986. There’s just something about turning actual pages and glancing over a multitude of words that gets the creative juices flowing. And if I still can’t find the exact word that I want, I pull out my beat up Roget’s from 1965. The book has a slightly different setup and is very helpful in finding phrases that send me down a different path to the word(s) that are precisely what I was looking for.

    I would love to see Dr. Roget’s original version to see how far it’s come.

  14. The Dictionary Game! We used to play that — one of our friends told us he made it up.

    If I gave up the use of the thesaurus, my writing would be reduced (cut down, diminished, lowered, scaled-down…) to composing the weekly grocery list.

  15. Dean Koontz to Stephen King, “Steve, I beg to differ.” He then proceeds to use words so obscure only over-educated geeks like me know them.

    As a writing teacher, I want to batter Stephen King’s head with my Nerf Noodle of Knowledge every time he opens his mouth with his arrogant my-way-or-the-highway writing advice, some of it so worthless no writer can use it. Everyone’s writing journey and method is different, and the trick is to find out what works for YOU, not Stephen King, me, or anyone here. I try to offer different perspectives and methods to my students and hope the Eureka moment strikes as it did with me when I read Ben Bova’s book on writing, and the mix of plot, character and structure suddenly made sense. I’d read dozens of books on writing before that, but they were no real help on that subject. Ben Bova’s book. A lightning bolt of understand shot through me, and I got it.

    If a thesaurus helps you as you write, then use it. If it helps you when you rewrite, use it. If you find your words are too sophisticated for your viewpoint character, change them. If they aren’t sophisticated enough, then change them.

    And as an extra piece of screw-King advice, use a visual dictionary that has images with names for the parts so you won’t stop writing because the word for the thingies you put your feet on going up a ladder stymies you during a brain-fart moment, and you can’t move forward. (“Rung.” True story.)

    • Amen on the visual dictionary, Marilynn! Mine’s close by, has been for years. I know car parts, firearms parts, boat parts…electric and chemical, not so much. My favorite name, though, is what our police helicopter pilots used to call the part that holds the rotors on: the Jesus nut. Because if it goes….

  16. Whether I’m editing novels or writing, I use the handy Word thesaurus constantly. I click on it it to suggest alternatives where my writer clients overuse mundane verbs like ran, walked, or looked, and also to offer variants where they use the same word or root word within a sentence or paragraph.
    And I’m constantly referring to my online Merriam-Webster dictionary and, less often, my online Chicago Manual of Style. I still have big, bulky versions of all three but seem to rarely open them these days.

  17. I just looked up “thesaurus” on thesaurus.com. Boy, was I disappointed! “Onomasticon” looked promising (and vaguely dirty). Alas, it’s not a synonym for “thesaurus.” The last dinosaur to tread the earth is the lonely Thesaurus.

  18. Generally, I agree with Stephen King. The thought of relying on a thesaurus to strengthen your writing is a dangerous indicator that something’s amiss. But—and there’s always a but—sometimes, you need just the right word. And if you’re well read, that word is probably floating around somewhere in your brain.

    But you just can’t recall it.

    When I look up synonyms, I often rediscover words I already knew but had forgotten. They’re like old friends—and I happily employ them. That’s how I use a thesaurus.

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