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Thesaurus: Friend or Foe?

Ally or adversary? Help or hindrance? Useful or useless? *closes the thesaurus*

Before writing Stealing Magic I would have said my vocabulary was OK. It was good enough to get me through my exams at school and uni. It allowed me to write business cases and presentations in my day job, and I rarely found myself lost for words.

However, writing a book showed me I had been kidding myself, at least to some degree. To begin with, when I wrote the first draft, I was blissfully ignorant. Completely immersed in what was happening to my characters, I wrote almost without thinking because my only desire was to type the words as the story unfolded in my head. But when I read it back, my rose-tinted glasses slipped a little.

It turned out my vocabulary was rather more limited than I had realised. Sometimes it was over-complicated and other times it was boring. It wasn’t just the magic and the world-building. I didn’t know many alternatives for commonly-used actions and emotions so I repeated myself a lot. A character can only roll their eyes so many times before it becomes ridiculous (especially if they’re a teenager – making me guilty of repetition and stereotyping).

OK, I thought. No problem. I’ll just use the thesaurus.

Well… it’s fair to say that was a learning exercise and a half. Why? Because most of the problems could only be resolved by improving my writing, not by inserting alternative words. I found out the thesaurus fixed nothing if the text was badly constructed in the first place. In fact, on occasion, the thesaurus made things worse.

To illustrate the kind of thing I mean, I’ll use an extreme example from the brilliant TV series Friends. There is an episode where Joey uses a thesaurus when he’s writing a letter of recommendation to an adoption agency on behalf of Monica and Chandler.

Original: They are warm nice people with big hearts
‘Improved’: They are humid prepossessing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps(!)

That’s not to say the thesaurus isn’t helpful. It is, but only in the right context. I often refer to it to find a quick alternative, particularly for adjectives in descriptions. For example, the Seminary of Magic might be an imposing building, but if I say that every single time I should just rename it the Imposing Seminary of Magic. And I'm always searching for different verbs to describe magical energy - it used to be that it only shimmered, but now it glitters, glows, glimmers, radiates, sparkles, and gleams as well!

Therefore, my conclusion is that the thesaurus is like the small bag of cosmetics on the table in my bedroom. It can be a very useful tool, but the outcome depends entirely on how well it’s applied (less is more!) and it can’t actually change my face (sorry, my book). At best, it can enhance it. Or enrich it. Or upgrade it…

Do you use a thesaurus? Do you find it helpful? Thank you for reading today’s post and happy writing!

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