Do you ever draw a blank when you’re trying to find just the right word to fit a situation in your fiction or nonfiction writing? It’s on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t think of it. That’s where the trusty thesaurus comes in. Look up the most ordinary or closest word to the one you need, and you’ll find similar words you can then use to narrow down to "le mot juste” – the one that perfectly expresses what you’re looking for.
The thesaurus sometimes gets a bad rap because of writers who get carried away trying to find a more original way to express something and end up replacing good, solid, concrete words with abstract or esoteric words that evoke no emotion and often annoy or confuse the reader. For example, using pretentious words like “abscise” instead of “cut” or “snip,” or “mendacious” instead of “dishonest” or “lying.” But if used judiciously, the thesaurus can be an indispensable guide for helping you enrich your language and imagery and write more powerfully—and keep the readers absorbed in your story. And by avoiding trite, blah, everyday words that have lost their power, you keep your imagery fresh and your story compelling.
For example, check out how many ways you can say “walked” or “moved.” (Hint – look up the present tense – “walk” or “move.”) You can use an online thesaurus or go all-out and buy the best print one out there – J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder, which, at a hefty 1361 pages long, is without a doubt the most comprehensive thesaurus in book form in the English language. (Thanks to Jessica Page Morrell for turning me on to this indispensable aid for writers.)
For the verb “walked” for example, Rodale gives us a long list of great synonyms for the verb "walk" to help us capture just the right situation and tone. He just lists them, but here I’ve roughly categorized some of them to suit various situations, and changed them to past tense, to suit most novels and short stories. Can you think of words to add to any of these categories?
Drunk, drugged, wounded, ill: lurched, staggered, wobbled, shuffled, shambled
Urgent, purposeful, concerned, stressed: strode, paced, treaded, moved, went, advanced, proceeded, marched, stepped
Relaxed, wandering: strolled, sauntered, ambled, wandered, roamed, roved, meandered, rambled, traipsed
Rough terrain, hiking, tired: tramped, marched, trooped, slogged, trudged, plodded, hiked
Sneaking, stealth: sidled, slinked, minced, tiptoed, tread softly
Showing off: strutted, paraded
Other situations: waddled, galumphed (moved with a clumsy, heavy tread), shambled, wended
So in general, it’s best to avoid plain vanilla verbs like “walked” or “went” if you can find a more specific word to evoke just the kind of movement you’re trying to describe. But choose carefully! For example, I’d usually avoid show-offy words like “ambulate” and “perambulate” and “peregrinate” (!), or colloquial/slang/regional expressions like “go by shank’s mare” and “hoof it.”
Also, some synonyms are too specific for general use, so they can be jarring if used in the wrong situations. I had two author clients who seemed to like to use “shuffled” for ordinary, healthy people walking around. To me, “shuffled” conjures up images of a patient moving down the hallway of a hospital, pushing their IV, or an old person moving around their kitchen in their slippers. Don’t have your cop or PI or CEO shuffling! Unless they’re sick or exhausted--or half-asleep. Similarly, I had a client years ago who was writing about World War II, and where he meant to have soldiers and officers "striding" across a room or grounds or battlefield, he had them "strutting." To me, you wouldn't say "he strutted" unless it was someone full of himself or showing off. It's definitely not an alternate word for "walked with purpose" as "he strode" is.
Similarly, be careful of having someone “march” into a room, unless they’re in the military or really fuming or determined. “Strode” captures that idea of a purposeful or determined walk better. And in a tense situation, don’t have your character “saunter” around. Sauntering implies a relaxed, carefree pace. So after you’ve found a few possible words in the thesaurus, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to also check the exact meaning in your dictionary. For that, I recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (mine has 1622 pages).
Or try looking up the verb “look” in a good thesaurus. Here are some of the synonyms J.I. Rodale lists: see, visualize, behold, notice, take in, regard, observe, study, inspect, examine, contemplate, eye, check out, scrutinize, review, monitor, scan, view, survey, scout, sweep, watch, observe, witness, gaze, peer, glance, glimpse, ogle, leer, stare, goggle, gape, gawk, squint, take a gander, spy, peek, peep, steal a glance at, glare, glower, look down at, look daggers… (and the list goes on). Some of these, and others he lists, are too specific or archaic for general use in fiction, so again, choose carefully. Don’t use “behold” for “look” in your present-day thriller or mystery, for example! And “reconnoiter” works for military situations, but not for everyday use. Also, watch for eyes doing weird physical things, like "his eyes bounced around the room."
Also, don’t start using a bunch of fancy synonyms for “said.” Best to just use “he (or she) said” most of the time, as words like “postulated” and “uttered” and “articulated” can be laughable and distracting, whereas "said" gets the meaning across without drawing attention to itself.
Why not open your own Word file and call it “Thesaurus” or “Synonyms,” then start lists for the verbs you use most in your writing, like walk, move, look, run, etc. That way you can quickly find lots of variations and try them on for size.
Writers – do you have anything to add? Any suggestions for finding just the right word to capture the mood or tone of the scene? Readers – do you have any examples of words that stuck out in your reading because they just didn’t fit the situation?
For a related post, see my my post, "Tone and Mood - Choose Your Words Carefully," and my review of The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
Copyright © Jodie Renner, August 2012
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook and Twitter.