On Becoming a Professional Amateur: When to Hide the Thesaurus

I recently came across a version of the Eye of Argon online and realized it  made a great inside Science Fiction joke for a scene I was writing in a rom-com. I also realized that it related to the subject of this post: the (ab)use of the thesaurus.

For anyone who is not inside Science Fiction, the Eye of Argon is a manuscript penned by a young fellow of 16, I am told, that is perpetually read at SF conventions as a sort of after-hours game. The rules are simple. You are passed the manuscript and you read as far as you can without laughing so hard you cannot continue. The one who holds out the longest wins.

I participated in one of these when I was seven months pregnant with my second child. Important safety tip: Do not attempt an Eye of Argon reading when you are seven months pregnant.

Here are a couple of samples from the Eye of Argon: The enthused barbarian swilveled (sic) about, his shock of fiery red hair tossing robustly in the humid air currents as he faced the attack of the defeated soldier’s fellow in arms.

Further along we find:

Grignr’s emerald green orbs glared lustfully at the wallowing soldier struggling before his chestnut swirled mount. His scowling voice reverberated over the dying form in a tone of mocking mirth.

I think most readers will see the tell tale symptoms of one of the most dogged diseases in the world of writing.

I speak, dear Reader, of Thesauritis. 

When Mark Twain said that writers should “Always use the right word, not its second cousin,” I think he had this malady in mind. It manifests when a writer, eager to make their prose stand out from the crowd, decides that ordinary words won’t do and replaces them with related words from a thesaurus. The problem arises when that writer is unaware of the genealogy of the words the thesaurus offers as “related” terms.

With that in mind, let’s look at Grignr the Barbarian’s situation again:

The enthused barbarian swilveled (sic) about, his shock of fiery red hair tossing robustly in the humid air currents as he faced the attack of the defeated soldier’s fellow in arms.

Grignr’s emerald green orbs glared lustfully at the wallowing soldier struggling before his chestnut swirled mount. His scowling voice reverberated over the dying form in a tone of mocking mirth.

Our barbarian friend is engaged in battle. His response is to be enthused rather than furious or even embattled. Enthused makes it sound as if he’s at a soccer match or that someone has suggested a game of Murder Party. The adjective doesn’t match the situation.

When the attack comes from behind, the writer doesn’t want to say he turned or spun or pivoted. He picks out a loosely related term, swiveled, which gives the reader a completely different image. I don’t know about you, but in my mind, Our Hero has somehow managed to twist his upper torso to face the enemy without moving his feet. Also, I’m uncertain what it might look like for someone’s hair to toss robustly, but it makes me think of Fabio … or this guy.

In the later paragraph, the writer obviously wanted to use a less common word than eyes. He chose to give Grignr emerald green orbs, instead, which glared lustfully at the soldier he’s about to kill. Dear Reader, I’m willing to bet you get how jarring the use of the word lustfully is in this context. I’m not sure what alleged synonym the writer looked up (bloodlust?), but I think calling it a second cousin is assuming a far closer relationship than actually exists.

The word misuse issues in the selected paragraphs run the gamut from slightly off-center (enthused) and over-the-top (reverberated) to the definitely askew (scowling voice) to the downright wrong on all counts (glared lustfully). The writer has not only demonstrated a number of ways a misused thesaurus can sabotage your prose, but a related issue: putting adjectives and adverbs where they’re not necessary. (But that’s a different article.)

One writer I was mentoring wrote: Watching Graham walk away from his jail cell, whistling, Jarrod was furious. “You’ll never get to spend that money, you traitor. You’ve made a cuckold of me for the last time!” (names changed to protect innocent characters)

The operative word here is cuckold. The writer used it because his thesaurus indicated it meant “to betray” (or, as a noun, “someone who has been betrayed.”) His protagonist had, indeed, been betrayed by his friend. So he grabbed this lovely, archaic word rather than use the more common “You’ve betrayed me for the last time”.

The problem? Cuckold does mean someone who’s been betrayed … sexually by their wife or lover. This word is so nuanced that it refers specifically to a man suffering a very intimate type of betrayal. It is not a word you can use generically without unintentionally comic results.

My advice to anyone who feels their vocabulary isn’t up to snuff is, hide your thesaurus and write naturally for you. Do this at least through your first draft, then while you’re editing if you want to look for a better word or a prettier word or a better phrasing, do so. If you need to enlist the aid of another writer, join a writing group or find a mentor to help you learn your tools (words) organically.

The tiniest word choice can completely change the reader’s understanding of a scene. This is why I harp on knowing what words mean. Not just what the thesaurus coughs up, but what they mean in context and connotation.

For example, take this simple sentence: As I stepped down into the crowd, someone called my name. What a different impression do we get of the tone if we replace “someone” with “some punk”? Simple change—drastic results.

The moral of the tale: Know your tools—words—before you use them. Don’t rely on the thesaurus, use a dictionary that gives the nuanced meanings of words and preferably see them used in a sentence.

For your enjoyment, here’s a little exercise: Changing the minimum of words, rewrite the sample sentences below to evoke the following emotions: fear, affection, dislike.

  • I looked up to see a young man waving at me.
  • I was surprised to see John Purdy walk into the room.
  • “Who is it?” Celeste asked, peering through the curtain.



On Becoming a Professional Amateur: When to Hide the Thesaurus — 10 Comments

  1. Writing teachers call this Roget’s Disease. It is not fatal, but seems to be an ailment of childhood, like mumps. Mostly as writers mature it goes away.


  2. Snarf!

    I hadn’t heard that one. I’ve heard it called Thesauritis, though. Definitely a childhood or teen disease. I think in some cases it comes with the insecurity of the “teen years”. Although I had one client who admitted she had read the Thesaurus from cover to cover and tried to memorize useful words because she felt her native vocabulary wasn’t literary enough.

    We had a little talk about writing what you know and knowing what you write…

  3. FEAR

    I looked up to see a young man recoiling from me.
    I was horrified to see John Purdy walk into the room.
    ‘Who is it?’ Celeste asked, cowering behind the curtain.


    I looked up to see a young man smiling at me.
    I was contented to see John Purdy walk into the room.
    ‘Who is it?’ Celeste laughed, peering through the curtain.


    I looked up to see a young man sneering at me.
    I was annoyed to see John Purdy walk into the room.
    ‘Who is it?’ Celeste grumbled, peering through the curtain.

  4. Once again, Bob, you nailed it.

    This is a good exercise, I think to demonstrate just how powerful verbs are in qualifying the emotions driving an action. The last one, especially, I think is especially illustrative of that power.

    Celeste’s attitude is defined by a single word. That’s power. Moreover, it can cast an emotional ambiance over the entire scene that this tiny little sentence is in.

    I think a large part of the muddiness and confusion I see in the work of amateur writers is because they don’t realize the power of the tools they’re using. As a result they toss around verbs like “screecched” and “sqealed”, “roared” and “bellowed” without realizing the potency of the emotional images those seemingly simple words evoke.

  5. Years ago in a Usenet (remember that?) writing group, some dude waltzed in with a ‘sample’ for which he clearly expected applause and accolades. Instead he got an Eye of Argon response (I printed out the deathless piece,it still makes me cackle lo these many years later). Our author got annoyed at the reactions he was getting, so to get even he took up bits of the (published) work of other writers in the group and proceeded to “improve” it – and once again misfired utterly because instead of tears and groveling and people begging him to stop or else accapting his “improvements” with awed gratitude… he had people lining up going, do mine, do mine next please, while the rest of the group fell about laughing. He did one of mine and alas I never preserved it so it’s lost in the mists of time – but for those who have read it, he picked the opening chapter of Spellspam, and when the first unexpected magic leaked from a spam email with chaotic consequences in HIS version someone yelped, “Oh my God! Terrorists!” This has become my catchphrase for when things get too flowery and overwrought. It’s an “OH MY GOD TERRIRISTS” situation.

  6. I once received a manuscript in which a character’s desk had upon it a pile of interdicts.

  7. The thesaurus hates you and wants to make you look like an idiot. Therefore, its proper use is to jog your memory about words you already know.

  8. I dunno. It might be just me being fragile, possibly an effect of the current global climate of nastiness or the echoes of an ancient hurt, but I’m finding it really difficult to see the humour—or the purpose—in publicly ridiculing someone in this way, particularly a sixteen-year-old kid. Yes, it was a long time ago, and the author is no longer living, but still. He did live with that ridicule for a long time, and no-one let him forget it.

    Does anyone remember what it is like to be humiliated in front of one’s peers, or having something we’ve created—and our creations, no matter how ineptly rendered, are always dear to us as reflections of our innermost selves—ripped to shreds by those whose affirmation we seek? All for the sake of a little self-satisfied entertainment.

    Sure, I’ve seen a lot of bad writing, and admit to having my own private guffaw and head-shake at some of it, but I would never openly denigrate anyone so cruelly. I wouldn’t do it to my own kids, and I wouldn’t do it to anyone else’s—of any age—either. Because no matter how many years we accumulate, we never really do stray far from that tentative and vulnerable child concealed beneath, do we?

    Kindness dictates that if one has nothing positive to say, say nothing.

    Following my own advice now…

    • My apologies. And you were right. I should not have used the author’s name in the piece. I’ve deleted it. Please believe it was an aberration. I usually file off all the serial numbers when I use constructs to talk about craft.

      Also, please bear in mind that the intent is not to ridicule, but to critique. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve mentored who had habits every bit as destructive as the ones in Eye of Argon. Some of them learned how to handle their tools. Some of those went on to get published. Others did neither. But none of them would have learned if everyone who read their work had been “kind” instead of honest.

      When I critique writers for workshops, I always start with their strengths before getting to their weaknesses. But I must deal with their weaknesses or they won’t realize weaknesses exist. One group of writers I worked with gave me the nickname “Maya the Merciless,” and understood that a writer’s worst enemy is the critic who is “kind” and lies or says nothing at all.

      In the realm of the writing craft, what would be kindness in most settings is the furthest thing from it. It may make me grind my teeth and seethe when a first reader tells me my story lacks conflict, or that a character is two-dimensional, but it’s only through considering those things that I learn how to write better.