When You Edit, Use Your Thesaurus Sparingly

One of the most important reasons to edit your writing is to make it more readable and easy for your audience.

That is, unless you’re working on an experimental, creative writing project. (I’m looking at you, James Joyce.)

And the first rule for readable writing is, don’t choose a fancy word when a simple one will do.

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Now, this rule can be frustrating if you want to get a little creative—a natural desire for any writer. After all, sometimes common words can seem a little too common.

If you want to change a word or phrase, you might be tempted to rely on a thesaurus to find an alternative word.

In that case, here’s what you should do:


Put down the thesaurus. (Or rather, close the thesaurus website tab.)

Take a breath.

Think for a second.

Don’t get me wrong: I love a good thesaurus. It’s an important writing tool. But like all other tools, it can be overused, or used incorrectly.

Inexperienced wordsmiths often use a thesaurus to try to make their writing more interesting, sophisticated, academic, or professional. Unfortunately, they often end up choosing a less-than-appropriate word. This can be counter-productive and make the writing awkward or less clear.

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In my experience, there are two good reasons to use a thesaurus:

1. Finding an alternative to an overused word.

Maybe I’m writing a story where people are coming in and out of a house, and I use the phrase “front stoop” a lot. It might get repetitive to the point of ridiculous.

I could rewrite some of my sentences so that I don’t need to say “stoop” as much. Or, I could look the word up in a thesaurus and find related words. I might decide to use “landing” too.

Warning: If you use a thesaurus to substitute one word for another, make sure you choose words with the same definition. A thesaurus lists groups of related words, not perfect substitutes. For example, if you look up “restaurant” in the thesaurus you might see “cafeteria,” “coffee shop,” “bar,” and “diner” listed. Those are obviously different types of eateries that can’t be used interchangeably.

2. Finding a word you’re already thinking of.

For example, I might be trying to think of a specific word, something like “famous,” but not quite. I can’t remember it, but it’s on the tip of my tongue.

So I look up “famous” in the thesaurus and see “notorious” and go, “Aha!” That’s the one I wanted. (And then I check on the definition to make sure.)

It bears repeating: a thesaurus is a great writing tool. But that tool is not a crutch. Use it correctly, and use it sparingly.

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