Monday, August 13, 2012

The Thesaurus is Your Friend – Really!

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker 

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,, her blog,, and on Facebook and Twitter.  


  1. Excellent post with great examples. I've been keeping my own list of verbs to use instead of "walked" or "moved" and now I've added to it. The list for "look" is excellent as well.

    But it is a fine balance between using powerful, precise words and stuffing your text with language no one has heard of (The Maureen Dowd Syndrome). Readers often write to tell me they love my stories because they're so easy to read. But maybe I should reach for the thesaurus more often. :)

  2. LOL, Jodie… I was going to write a post very similar to this one, but you've done it so much better than I could!

    I love my Synonym Finder (and I thought Rodale was a woman - sheesh) and use it to explore different images of words. What often happens is while I'm using my SF, the exact right word that's slightly different from what I'm actually looking up will come to me.

    One of the things I appreciate is learning a new word, or a slightly different way to use an old one, from authors I love to read. I hope I offer that in an acceptable and limited way to my readers as well.

  3. Some very helpful information here, Jodie.

    "Gaze" is a word I often see overused in novels. When it starts appearing on every other page, I cringe. I think it's best to implement language people normally use in conversation. Can't remember the last time I gazed at someone. I think often, it's best to keep it simple. More common words like "look" are better; they don't draw as much attention, and most readers barely notice if they're repeated. Of course, if you want to make an impact or convey a mood, a more descriptive word is necessary, and that's when the thesaurus is helpful.

    I also like to use my Word Finder. It helps me find companion words. So if you looked up "eyes" for example, it would give you adjectives you can use to zero in more on what those eyes look like.

  4. Thanks for your comments, LJ, Peg and Drew.

    LJ, I totally agree with you when you say, "But it is a fine balance between using powerful, precise words and stuffing your text with language no one has heard of (The Maureen Dowd Syndrome)." If you're using words no one has heard of, you're not communicating directly, and if someone has to go to the dictionary to look up a word, you've taken them out of the story, which is definitely self-defeating. If you want to try out a lesser-known word, make sure the readers would get the meaning by the context.

    Drew, I agree that any word can be overused and start jumping out at you. I think synonyms are best if they give you just the nuance of meaning you're looking for to capture the mood you're after, like "glared" as opposed to "gazed" or "glanced," for example - huge difference!

  5. Fantastic post for all kinds of writers. I use the online because it's convenient (and free).

    I love your examples, Jodie!

  6. Excellent info. I rely on my thesaurus, and, because I'm apt to slide British words where they don't belong, I also have to check the UK v US words to make sure I have the correct use of English for the scenes. Umm...I'm now looking through my current work in progress for all the instances I've "gazed" at someone......

  7. Thanks, Marlyn and Jenny.

    Jenny, I don't see anything wrong with the verb "gazed." As in anything, just don't overdo it.

  8. The other part of this equation is the character's voice. To me, each character is a bit different and, for some, those weak verbs might be appropriate. McKenna, my protag in Photo Finish, is more relaxed in his language. He does, in fact, use phrases like "hoofing it." But, that's his style which fits him. That style, however, doesn't fit other characters in the book. The biggest challenge was writing the pidgen style used by a couple of the Hawaiian-local characters in the book.

  9. Thanks for your comment, Terry. Yes, of course there are the perfect situations for more colloquial, regional expressions like "hoofing it."

    As for reproducing a pidgen style, I haven't read your book, but I would caution writers to tread carefully when considering trying to reproduce the exact sounds of regional dialects, as that can annoy the readers and also offend people of that region. More on that in my blog post here at CFC called "Some Dialogue Don'ts".

  10. Thank you for pointing out the word "gaze". I checked my novel and I used it 41 times, mostly all wrong uses of the word. I fixed them all, only keeping them where appropriate. That really saved me.

    The Synonym Finder helps me when I can't remember a word or when I want to say something but don't know how to word it correctly. I'll look up a similar word and find what I'm looking for on the list.

  11. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Cindy. Here's Merriam Webster's definition of "gaze" (verb): "to fix the eyes in a steady intent look, often with eagerness or studious attention."

  12. Thank you for the definition of "gaze", Jodie.

    You mentioned that it's better to use "said" than any of its alternatives. What's best for a question? I see writers use both "said" and "asked" when a character asks a question.

    For example:
    "What's for dinner?" he asked.
    "What's for dinner?" he said.

    Which is the correct way?

  13. Cindy, it's not a matter of "correct" but more of current norms or preferred forms. And with fiction, preferences can and do change. "He said" is not considered wrong, but "he asked" is better for a question and is very common so doesn't jump out at you or distract like "he queried" or "he inquired" or "he questioned" would.

  14. Thank you, Jodie. I'll stick with "ask". I actually did write a few "uttered's". I'll just go and take them out now.

  15. Yes, it's a fine balance between using the most precise word and over using the most precise word.
    A teeter-totter in the playground of writing. And I hate to fall off too thank you for the insights, Jodie.

  16. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, D.F. I hope my ideas help a bit when you're writing.

  17. Great examples, Jodie. You make me want to go buy another Thesaurus, specifically, J.I. Rodale's book. I bet it's expensive, though.

  18. Only $12.91 in paperback on Amazon, Helen, and $21.09 in hardcover. I bought the paperback and it's great! Large size - it has to be, with that many pages.


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