Using the Thesaurus

Some writers get rapped on their literary knuckles for using a thesaurus. They handle it loose and dangerous like a loaded gun.

Careful, you could shoot your eye out.

Selecting words can be tough. Choose the wrong one and it alters the atmosphere, changes the ambiance. Choose the right one and it narrows the focus, tightens the tension. Word choice can be critical but sometimes the reader doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I got slapped down once by a reviewer for using a couple of phrases they said weren’t in use at that time (it was a period piece).


The truth is, both phrases were in common parlance during the time period the story was set – they still are some three hundred years later. The reviewer assumed that because the phrases were popular in the current setting, they were innappropriate and out-of-place in the historical landscape.

Here’s the tricky bit. As much as I disliked having the snot-nosed kid question the quality of my research and dismiss my scholarly knowledge…they might be right, for the wrong reason. I know the accuracy of my presentation but the casual reader did not. The end-result is that the reviewer was jarred out of the story. Uh-oh.

In that case, being correct was less important than realizing that the words (no matter their accurate portrayal) distracted the reader enough to wrinkle her brow and huff out a query. A good thing to know. I changed the dialogue because in the end the way it was said was not as important as taking the risk of jerking the reader out of the 17th century and into the 21st. Sometimes it isn’t that we opened the thesaurus with reckless disregard for the safety of others, it’s that we need to remember most readers are not necessarily writers. Choosing the right words is always a challenge.

What tricky phrasings have caught you off-guard? What last jerked you from the narrative? Which darling did you have to kill?

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  1. #1 by Bridgette Booth on July 25, 2011 - 12:04 pm

    I have had the same reaction, Lesann. A phrase I researched and chosen carefully was determined "out of place" because it was identified with another time period. Didn't matter that it was used correctly. I understood, but had to hold back responding for several days because that response would have been a prissy rebuttal with citations. (Uh, that would be a real relationship builder!)

  2. #2 by Lesann Berry on July 25, 2011 - 3:17 pm

    I do love a prissy rebuttal with citations – if I'm on the sending end!

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