Use Your Thesaurus and Dictionary Correctly

Today we look at how one writer uses his thesaurus and dictionary in a fascinating way.

The following is a five-minute video from Martin Amis, one of Britain’s well-known literary novelists and essayists. I recommend clicking the “cc” close-captioned on the bottom next to the settings button. That way you can read his words while also hearing them. Below the video I have a couple of comments and then, hopefully, will read your responses.

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I prefer to use The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale instead of a thesaurus. I think it is easier to use.

In my reading and editing work, I find that overusing the same words in close proximity is jarring and needs to be eliminated most of the time. I suppose Amis’s thinking here is reasonable, but it occurs too often to believe it shows an author at their best.

I like his example showing the misuse of the word “dilapidated.” The origin of a word does have meaning. We see this regularly in Bible study when studying original Hebrew, Greek, or Aramic to figure out the appropriate English parallel.

I also appreciate him teaching that speed is not of the essence. Sometimes you can get lost in the deep weeds with word choice and end up paralyzing yourself in an endless revision loop. However, sloppy writing is everywhere we look. I suspect you’ve read a poorly written or edited book (or blog!) lately and wondered how it ever saw the light of day.

What are your thoughts on this? Please comment below. There are no wrong answers here, merely a friendly discussion of the craft of writing.

34 Responses to Use Your Thesaurus and Dictionary Correctly

  1. Avatar
    Bev Murrill April 20, 2020 at 5:14 am #

    I understood his meaning about the comments about Lincoln because it was a political perspective, but in general, I think it’s really important not to use the same words in close proximity unless it’s for effect.

    I do use my Thesaurus; have never heard of The Synonym Finder, and although I’m interested, I would prefer it to be online so I don’t have to buy another book for an already overcrowded group of bookshelves, and because if I’m using my computer to write, which I do, then having it online is much easier to access.

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    Frank Ball April 20, 2020 at 5:29 am #

    This is one of my pet peeves. I use quite a bit, because I’m not looking for a different word. I’m looking for the word that will create a better picture in people’s minds.

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      Jill K Willis April 20, 2020 at 6:34 am #

      Thanks for the tip! I’d never heard of OneLook.

    • Avatar
      Stacy Simmons April 20, 2020 at 9:07 am #

      Thank you, Frank, for sharing OneLook. I’ll have to bookmark the site. Happy writing! Take care.

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    Laura Selinsky April 20, 2020 at 5:58 am #

    Thanks for sharing this video. I loved the idea of being restored by the words you learn.

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    Sharon K. Connell April 20, 2020 at 6:16 am #

    The Synonym Finder is one of the best books I’ve found for a writer.

    When it comes to repeating a word in close proximity, I think it has its purpose when trying to make an impact on what you’re saying. Diacope was used effectively by Shakespeare. And, repeating a strong word for emphasis is better than substituting it for a weak one. However, we have to be careful not to use the technique so often that we bore the reader.

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    Katherine Briggs April 20, 2020 at 6:42 am #

    Fascinating video. Thank you for sharing. I appreciate Amis’s encouragement to combine words that sound delightful together (avoiding rhyming prefixes, etc). Stories that pay attention to this seem more powerful.

    When I repeat words, it is never for a good reason, ha! I fall into this because I have not thought through the setting, action, or characters’ emotions well enough to describe it honestly.

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    Shirlee Abbott April 20, 2020 at 7:05 am #

    Oh my, this gave me a new vision of James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” True religion is to look after their emptiness. That alone was worth the time watching.

    But I learned so much more. Thank you, Steve.

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      Denise April 20, 2020 at 2:35 pm #

      The Greek word has a different derivation from the English. The root means “destitute.”

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    Mary Pat Johns April 20, 2020 at 7:12 am #

    I appreciate his take on digging deeper into word choice. The part about rhythm helped verbalize an important element of crafting great sentences. Thank you!

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    Thomas Womack April 20, 2020 at 7:31 am #

    These are helpful and delightfully expressed perspectives from Martin Amis. I had to smile over his closing remarks about fortifying oneself with a small win against the “genocide” that attacks one’s aging gray cells–yes indeed! I use both Roget’s unabridged “International Thesaurus” as well as the “Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus,” which is structured alphabetically like Rodale’s “Synonym Finder,” which I’ve used in the past. I find both approaches helpful in different ways. I find that Roget typically gives me a wider range of options, which I very much like, while the other alpphabetical approach can often offer faster help (though sometimes no help at all, when the word I’m looking up isn’t there, something which almost never happens with Roget. (My clothbound copy of Roget is frayed on the edges and taped together on the spine — I was going to say it was dilapidated, but I changed my mind.) I would also add here that I think this whole process of finding the right words in well-crafted prose is certainly for a higher cause than winning the esteem of fellow writers (or than fortifying our supply of gray cells). Finding the truly right word — one that’s perfectly right most of all in meaning, but also in sound and rhythm for its context — is a wonderful service to readers. It reflects a true respect for the reader’s intelligence and dignity of the mind, and also for her being created in the image of God — who himself always spoke in perfectly right words, to which the infinite craftsmanship of the Bible amply testifies.

    • Avatar
      Carolyn E. Phillips April 20, 2020 at 2:33 pm #

      Personally, I’m a long-time fan of the Synonym Finder for the simple fact that it not only groups words together around meaning, but goes beyond that to similar emotions. This beautifully serves those times when I’m not sure yet how I want to say something.

      I’ve also laid down an important rule for myself. When writing my first draft I put my Synonym Finder out of reach until the first draft is complete. It saves me all kinds of time that’s too early to spend. Next draft it’s within easy reach.

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    Kristen Joy Wilks April 20, 2020 at 7:45 am #

    Interesting. It makes sense that one must not swing too far one way or the other in both repeating words and finding any and every synonym regardless of sound to avoid repetition. I guess it is just like one should not overuse the Show don’t Tell rule. There is a point where one must Tell and do it well for the story to shine. A fascinating way to look at repetition that I hadn’t encountered before. Thank you.

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 20, 2020 at 7:51 am #

    I tried to find my thesaurus
    but I think he ran and hid;
    he was feeling some remorse,
    on eating neighbour’s kid.
    He’s big and green and scaly
    and his teeth can’t be dismissed.
    He has to floss them daily
    because he dined on dentist.
    A politician went from door-to-door
    for a meeting-teaching session
    and I couldn’t stop Thessie before
    he internalized the lesson.
    But he’s kinda cool, he’s where it’s at,
    and no, I haven’t seen your cat.

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    Dr. M.Wayne Clark April 20, 2020 at 8:03 am #

    Hello Steve, I really appreciate it when you give resources that we can buy or read or listen to as a way to strengthen and reinforce what you are saying. My first Thesaurus was given to me by my mentor in writing Stephen (Poe ) Whitfield( The Making of Star Trek) I still have it in my library. Wayne,

  12. Avatar
    Bill Bethel April 20, 2020 at 8:56 am #

    I was not aware that the word ‘widow’ is a derivation of ’empty.’ Maybe I need a different dictionary. Any suggestions?

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    Joyce Erfert April 20, 2020 at 9:02 am #

    I was amazed at what I heard in my writing when reading my work to the group. Now I read things out loud even by myself because my ear catches things like repetition, for example. Also, a long time ago I found a book called Choose the Right Word by S. I. Hayakawa. He not only gives the alternatives to a word but also explains the meanings and connotations.

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    Stacy Simmons April 20, 2020 at 9:06 am #

    What a fascinating video, it will make me rethink the structure of sentences that I write. I loved the fact that he likened that becoming more aware of word meanings would increase your brain cells. The former educator in me loves this. Thank you for this information.

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    Carol Buchanan April 20, 2020 at 9:10 am #

    As a writer of historical fiction set in Montana during the Civil War, I’m constantly looking up words in the thesaurus (Roget’s) or the dictionary (Merriam-Webster). But my go-to favorite for words and their meanings is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED not only tells when the word entered the English language, but what it meant when people first began to use it and how it was used. Along with definitions and etymology, the OED uses quotations from anything in print to show how it was used. The OED also has the derivation of the word from whichever language it originally came from, but its later meanings up to the present day. I can’t, of course, afford either the entire OED (as if I’d have a big enough space to house it) or its smaller versions, but I sprang for the Shorter OED on CD about 10 years ago. Hardly a day goes by but I check to be sure a word meant what I think it meant in 1864, or if it even existed then. That saves me from many a mistake.

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    Martha Rogers April 20, 2020 at 9:16 am #

    Thanks for the video. In my early days of writing, I had a problem with repetition. I have the Flip Dictionary and found it invaluable for synonyms, and all kinds of other things. I try to keep things simple, but not repeating the same things or words over and over again.

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    Nancy Nelson April 20, 2020 at 9:19 am #

    Changing up the words you use so that one word is not overused makes your writing more interesting which, hopefully, encourages the reader to stay around longer ?

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    Eileen Hickman April 20, 2020 at 9:23 am #

    We hear so much these days about writing fast and churning out the books to increase sales. It’s refreshing to hear someone successful talk about slowing down enough to take the care to get it right, to write well, to write with beautiful, meaningful words and sentences.

  19. Avatar
    Kay DiBianca April 20, 2020 at 9:25 am #

    Steve, thank you for this video. Six minutes of fascinating, edifying, and challenging information! My gray cells were revving the whole time!
    I have often thought of writing as a form of music. Just as great composers create a symphony with different movements and themes by combining notes in a variety of ways, so the author creates a literary rhythm through words. Finding just the right words to convey the story is hard work. Very hard work.
    I have also experienced the thrill of finding the perfect word to plug into a sentence. I love to think my gray cells get a boost from that. Red Bull without the caffeine. Or the calories.
    However, I disagree with Nabokov that the only school of writing is that of talent. I’m sure there are few equivalents to Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach in the writing community, but I believe it’s possible to become a very good writer, perhaps even an inspirational one, through hard work and persistence. Just my two cents (or two notes) worth.

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    Frenchy Dennis April 20, 2020 at 11:53 am #

    Steve, You are right on. I quit reading self-published books unless they are recommended by a person I trust. Most have had no professional editing and are a mess of overused words, wrong words, and, worst of all, poor historical research. I recently read a book where the author changed the protagonist’s name in the middle of the book. Arg! I’ll never know how it ended. I am a voracious reader and love good, well-written, well-researched books.

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    Brennan S. McPherson April 20, 2020 at 11:57 am #

    Of course writing quality makes a difference. But people get far too obsessed with technical grammar rules, etc., and treat people inhumanely as a result. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you used proper grammar. (Change my mind.) What is most central is, “Did what you mean get communicated?” Grammar, word choice, etc., are no more than tools. So you have great words and grammar? Same as having a nice hammer and a skillful way of wielding it. Lesser skills still build houses, and sometimes houses that people love more. Many don’t have any idea of how much energy goes into the sheer weight of imagining events, ideas, people, settings, and rendering them in a way that’s a continuous experience. Too often, many don’t seem to realize that everything made by human hands will be flawed.

  22. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan April 20, 2020 at 12:09 pm #

    Amen and to all.

    I find that rapid-pace writing is good. Rewriting is slow. Editing is slower. Also easily seen are the tired words, the repetitive words, and I have developed my list of alternatives.

    That seems to work.

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    Roberta Kautz April 20, 2020 at 1:05 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this video. I liked what he said about what you lose by using a dictionary and thesaurus (a few minutes) and what you gain (the respect of others). I say that a thesaurus is a writer’s best friend:)

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    Denise April 20, 2020 at 2:29 pm #

    I have been taught not to use a fifty cent word when a ten cent word gives the exact meaning that one requires; however, I do not think that I have ever been told to reduce the musicality of prose by avoiding alliteration and rhymes. Is that true for all genres?

    • Avatar
      Brennan S. McPherson April 20, 2020 at 5:10 pm #

      Alliteration can be bad if it’s too obvious or tacky. If you are deft with it, and it’s apt (not overused), there’s no reason to avoid it. That’s one of the tools in the toolbox of writers who have a “lyrical voice.” Rhymes generally work better when used subtly.

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    Sharon Simms April 20, 2020 at 7:43 pm #

    Good information. I will look at the dictionary more.

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    Melanie April 20, 2020 at 9:54 pm #

    I’m guilty of primarily using the thesaurus in my day job — trying to find shorter words for headlines. But I will start using it more in my fiction writing. I also get stuck in the loop of too much self-editing before I even get to the draft stage. I like picking out the perfect word while I write, but maybe some of it can wait until rewrite.

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    Lee Carver April 21, 2020 at 9:30 am #

    I do strive to avoid repeating a word in a given passage. It bothers me, though, when doing so puts a strain on the paragraph. For example, the MC pours herself a cup of coffee. Then she savors the hot liquid. Then she lifts the cup of steaming beverage to her lips. Makes me want to scream, “It’s coffee! Just say so!” Like the old “he said/she said” discussion, let it be an invisible word in the process of showing the meaning.

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    Constance Buckley April 23, 2020 at 4:13 pm #

    I enjoyed the presentation. I agree that too much of the same word often throws me out of the realm of entertainment or learning as a reader, and causes me to become an editor.
    I did not know that dilapidated referred to stone work.
    Thanks for making this YouTube short video available to wordsmiths.

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    Kaye Callaway April 25, 2020 at 2:16 pm #

    Intelligent and interesting discussion of word choices. I also use The Synonym Finder as my main source (other than my phone’s Google). Touching me personally is when he says daily use of a dictionary or thesaurus stretches and strengthens our brain cells while we assume they degrade and deteriorate with our age. Thanks for his and your encouragement!

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