Admit it: at least once, you have found yourself frantically scanning the thesaurus, trying to find that reclusive perfect word to use in your writing.
While this is an understandable reaction to the highly frustrating tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, it can be a bad habit to slip into. Now, we love a good, meaty adjective as much as the next person, but there is much to be said about not compulsively reaching for the thesaurus every time you get tongue-tied.
There’s nothing worse than reading a text where the author has obviously tried too hard and abused our friend the thesaurus. Have you ever come across a text that reads something like this:
‘Sally! Come back!’ Megan squalled.
Sally took no notice, but simply enjoined her horse to press on though the dank, unilluminated wood.
Excruciating, isn’t it? ‘Squall’ in the first line does not make much sense in the given context, as ‘squall’ usually refers to the noise a crying baby makes (or a gust of violent wind or the falling of heavy rain). To write this, we simply looked up the word ‘shout’ in a thesaurus and picked this one at random as an alternative. As you can see, it doesn’t really ring true to the original meaning. In the second sentence, the words ‘enjoined’ and ‘unilluminated’ may mean the same as ‘urged’ and ‘dark’ fundamentally but they lose the tone of the text itself, hindering the narrative style and making the text cumbersome to read.
We would suggest sticking to a 10 second rule: if you look up a word in a thesaurus and can’t find the perfect alternate word listed in under 10 seconds, put the thesaurus down and think long and hard about what you want to convey to your readers. Chances are, if no word is jumping out at you after 10 seconds, there’s a reason for it. Perhaps you haven’t fully worked out what you want to say. Perhaps you need to take a step back and simplify things in your writing. Sometimes simple wording really is best. As Jonathan Franzen once said, ‘Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.’
To sum up: the thesaurus can be a writer’s best friend or worst enemy; it is up to the writer to decide which it is to be. Get back to the basics, but don’t neglect your thesaurus; use it to enrich your text rather than burden it. Don’t suffer from Thesauritis!