I’m working on my book and I bust out my thesaurus… again. If I’m editing and I don’t have the thesaurus tab open in my browser, send help. I’m probably dead. I used to not use a thesaurus all that much, but now that I’m exploring my style and prefer more fantastical, dreamy prose the thesaurus has become my best friend. Am I the type of person that will be buried with dozens of thesauruses? Probably not. Am I the type of person who automatically defaults to a thesaurus to make my work dreamy, lovely to read, and sometimes above other people’s reading levels? Yes. Yes, I am.

How do I use a thesaurus when writing?

A thesaurus is your best friend when you need to spice up your writing, add complexity, and intensify mood. You don’t need a physical thesaurus, but an internet thesaurus is absolutely necessary. I don’t know if any of you have noticed, but Microsoft Word’s Thesaurus is TERRIBLE. There are many, many better words than what Microsoft Office can give you. Using a thesaurus is particularly important if you need to up the reading level of your manuscript to make it more interesting to read for adult audiences. Not only will you be expanding your own vocabulary, but also your readers’. Who knows! You just might learn something.

What is a thesaurus good for?

This should be a pretty straight forward answer, but a thesaurus is like a dictionary for synonyms. For example, if I wanted to replace the word cold with something more interesting to use in my work, I can use a thesaurus to find words with the same definition. The options the thesaurus might give me could be bleak, icy, or wintry. You can even find more obscure synonyms like two-dog night, inclement, or frore. Some of these are going to be too high for most reading levels, but the more popular ones are great for spicing up your work. If you find yourself using the same nouns over and over, a thesaurus can be useful to break up your manuscript.

This will also help prevent you from using the wrong word. If you want a zesty word to replace the word fight but accidentally use the word quarry instead of quarrel, that can get awkward. People without a thesaurus make the mistake present in the “bone apple teeth” meme. Granted, when you don’t know how something is spelled in another language it can be hard to write it on paper. “Florida Ceiling” is another example I’ve seen. Someone was asking about “Florida ceiling” windows and their friend had to explain that it was instead “floor to ceiling” windows. Having a thesaurus (and a dictionary, for that matter) will help prevent homonyms or words that sound similar to the one you’re looking for from slipping into your manuscript.

When do I need to use a thesaurus?

I use a thesaurus when I’ve noticed I’ve used a word two or more times in a couple of paragraphs. When editing something that I wrote today, I noticed I used the word “reeling” more than I should’ve. One quick jaunt over to the thesaurus helped me find “teeter,” which was perfect for what I was using. There are two ways to find excess words in your manuscript. The first is to read your manuscript out loud. Once you do so, you’ll quickly realize that there are repeated words. The secondary way to do it is by using software like ProWritingAid. It is designed to help you find repeated words and sentence starts, so you’ll know when you’ve written a word too many times. Once you’ve spotted them in your manuscript, it’s time to root them out and change them.

BE CAREFUL when using a thesaurus and make sure that you’re using words that accurately fit the context of your manuscript. In my “reeling” example, my character has just lost a lot of blood and is dizzy. I wouldn’t want to use the word “swinging” because that makes the character sound drunk. “Twirling” is similar. It just doesn’t fit my context. Check the definitions of your words and understand their connotations before substituting them into your work. You’ll be glad you did and your editor won’t be confused when they read your work.

What can different word choice do for my manuscript?

When swapping out words, word choice can be used to help depict certain moods in your work. When using the word “cold,” each synonym has a different tone when applied to the context. “Nippy” is less cold than “frigid,” and “brisk” is way less cold than “below zero.” Based on the genre that you’re writing and how you apply your words, you can change the entire feel of your work.


Take some time and get familiar with different synonyms for your favorite words. As the venerable Mark Twain once said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very.’ Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Think about this when you’re working on your own work, and make sure to keep an eye on how many words you’re repeating. Get rid of that boring vocabulary, bust open your thesaurus, and happy writing!