Kill your Thesaurus

You’ve done it before. I’ve done it before.

You are editing and you hit the fifteenth time you’ve described the forest as dark. So you pull out the thesaurus and go with “gloomy,” or “shadowed.” Then move on.

Really? Is that the best you’ve got?

Writers get into word ruts.

More than that, we get into description ruts. Which is fine during the first draft, but during the editing phase fixing them involves more than a simple switcheroo of word choice.

What do I mean by a description rut? When you pound the reader with describing something the exact same way without adding anything new. In other words, you just open the thesaurus and pick a synonym.

thesaurus extinction

Every time you describe something, it is a chance to add to a reader’s understanding of the environment, character, or situation. Just using a synonym doesn’t add much – it just repeats already known information. Instead of broadening the world of your book, it deepens a groove. Which can get awfully boring.

It could be a useful technique if you are trying to create a tightening spiral of lessening choices. As a character loses options, descriptions start repeating to mimic the limited thoughts/exits/etc. Think horror novel or psychological thriller. BUT in most cases feeding the reader with additional information while avoiding scene or description dumps later is the goal.

Don’t rehash. Ask yourself what is something new you can say about what you are trying to describe?

In an early draft of Spark of Defiance when Zhao first sees the hidden Nifail village of Avlun, I wrote this:

“Grass ropes disappeared into the shadows. They stood on the edge of a chasm, large enough to swallow a ship. Beams of sunlight illuminated a small stream with grassy banks along its floor. The flatness of the steppe hid the chasm from view until they stood at its rim.”

It works. But there is so much there I can not only clean up, but ADD to the moment to really bring Avlun to life. So after a few rounds of editing, this scene became:

“Ropes woven of long stranded grass disappeared downward. They stood at the far edge of a vast gouge in the earth, wide and deep enough at the surface to swallow a merchant ship or even the mass of one of the great trees in Lus na Sithchaine. In the beams of afternoon sunlight slanting down to the crevasse bottom far below, small bushes and mossy grass grew along a narrow stream.

Despite is size, the sheet flatness of where it lay in the rolling grass plain hid the gorge from view. Even looking across the landscape, Zhao could not find where side canyons twisted though he could see the dark openings along the length of the deep main chasm.”

I like it better. I see it in my mind better. Hopefully you do too!

So the next time you reach for a thesaurus, stop. Think about what you are really trying to describe. What other clues can you give the reader other than calling the forest gloomy? Are the leaves fallen and clinging damply to boots? Or do twigs hidden by dense undergrowth snap underfoot?

If you are describing a cave, don’t stop at dark or dank. Describe scraping a knee while pushing through a narrow slot. Tell me about the damp muck clinging to the heroine’s hand, the mineral smell, and echoing drip of water.

What are you working on now? Describe it to me!

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Written by: Autumn

Autumn (also known as Weifarer) is an indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently on the road in North America in a Four Wheel Camper along with her husband, Adam, and Cairn terrier, Ayashe.

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4 Comments

  1. writerbeelove

    I consult the thesaurus to give me a boost out of a tight corner, not just replace a word; or I use it when I know the word I want but can’t quite remember it but know something similar (I’m sure you know that frustration – the sudden blank space where that word should be). So many people go to the thesaurus to replace a word, only to use one that doesn’t actually have the same meaning or connotation or even part of speech, even though it is considered a synonym.

    • Weifarer

      Hi Bee! Oh boy do I know that mental blankness where a word should be…! In that case it becomes a charades game with my husband (who usually ferrets out what I want). And you made a great point about another reason to avoid a thesaurus for a simple word look-up. It could give you the wrong one!

  2. Jan Hawke

    Yay!, for long descriptive passages evoking the atmosphere, light and shade, not to mention emotional tone, as well as the physicality of the scene! Keep yer short, snappy stuff for convos and banter, and wax lyrical to take your reader into the action, time and place. Nobody falls in love with Tolkien’s ‘action’ scenes – that’s already seen to as you amble through the Shire with Bilbo and the Dwarves, or with Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin being sucked in by Old Man Willow in that long, slow glorious, misty, sultry, sunlit, wallowing prose with a side of mushrooms and copious alliteration!
    Writers should use language to paint the story if only occasionally – otherwise you might as well phone it all in to the newsdesk for the latest ‘bestselling’ writing masterclass.

    • Weifarer

      Hi Jan! Oh you remind me of why I love language. Poetic words in prose painting images I could fall into…! It doesn’t even have to be long, just that flash that awakens the senses and invigorates the reader’s mood. It has an important place as those riveting action scenes (or we can hope they are riveting and not the part people are skipping) and snappy dialogue. So much to love about writing and reading books! 😀