Beware the Wild Thesaurus!

Primrose clumpNow and then on the internet, I find that some well-meaning soul has put together a helpful list of synonyms for some common word such as ‘said’ or ‘walked.’ The idea behind these lists is that these words have been ‘abused’ and that readers are bored by writing that uses them frequently. While there is some truth to the notion that ‘walked’ or ‘said’ isn’t always quite the right word, it’s a grave mistake to assume that the simplest, most commonly used word should be your last choice.

My main issue with lists of ‘alternatives’ is that they encourage beginning writers to weaken, rather than strengthen, their writing. Using compact words like ‘said’ and ‘walked’ helps you develop an efficient style that can be understood by a wide range of readers. Your job as a writer of prose is not to lead your reader through a winding maze of syllables, but rather to get them to understand whatever series of concepts makes up your story. We understand concepts better when they are presented simply. This is why some of the most vivid, powerful writing is composed mainly of short, simple words.

In addition to leading novice writers down the primrose path of flowery, elaborate prose, the list of alternatives fails to help writers cope with the real problems in your writing. If your readers are bored with your dialogue or your descriptions of action, it’s not because you keep using ‘said.’ It might be because the readers learn nothing from the dialogue; it might be because there’s no cadence to the conversation; it might even be because your characters are speaking in unnaturally florid language. Whatever the diagnosis is behind dull dialogue or action sequences, the issue can rarely be fixed by stuffing the scene with synonyms.

Now, this is not to say that you should never (or even rarely) use synonyms. If you’ve got a character struggling to speak because of illness or emotion, for example, you’d better pick a synonym for “said” or you’ll waste ten words getting that image into your reader’s mind. A rich vocabulary is an essential tool for every writer. However, with a great vocabulary comes a great responsibility to know each word so well that you can spot the moments where you really need it.