bits and pieces

Do you use a thesaurus when you write? I do occasionally, usually when the right word is swirling just beyond my recognition but never as a means to puff up my word choice. Yet a certain successful genre novelist has supposedly said that  writer should never use a thesaurus, that if you have to look up a word this way, then it’s the wrong word.

I don’t get it. Maybe I’m missing some essential context for that admonition, but why would a person who works with words want to surrender an essential tool? Wouldn’t that be like disdaining a dictionary or spell checker?


I spoke bravely last week of intending to send my story, which is titled “The Death of Superman” by the way, to several lofty markets. (Given that it is part of my Fathers and Sons story cycle, you can probably suss out the theme based on the title.) I can report this week that it is now out to a half dozen magazines. A couple are publications I’d like to see my work in. A couple are places where I had some near misses in the past. One has an upcoming theme that might (or might not) fit that of my story. (I’m approaching their theme from pretty much the opposite direction from what they seem to be looking for. I’m hoping they find that intriguing and refreshing.) Since the story is “literary,” there are hundreds of potential markets for it, so in the weeks to come, I should be sending out to plenty of other places.

The story is 4,800 words and, oddly, that’s been a problem in some cases. Several magazines I was interested in have an upper limit of only 3,000 words. It’s not like this is commercial fiction; readers of litfic tend to have the attention spans (or endurance) to read longer pieces. When I saw that limit at one publication, I wrote the editor saying I had what I thought was a story that perfectly suited their point of view but was longer than their requested maximum. She wrote back saying, sensibly, that as a print publication, they have limited space, and in order to be able to include diversity in their selections, they have to restrict size. Okay, that makes sense. But ezines?


I use the term “story cycle” for my Fathers and Sons pieces in part because I like the sound of it and in part because it does seem to encapsulate the relationship of these stories. Yet I’m finding that because these stories involve only three characters as protagonists, and because they span three generations of living, I need to pay close attention to the relationships/implications of what happens in each story to foresee how it will affect the other stories. It’s getting to be more like writing a novel. Such are the troubles in my life.


“Velvet Elvis” has been nominated for the Million Writers Award. I’ll find out in early May that it was not selected as one of the Notable Stories among those nominated. And then I’ll find out at the end of May that it was not selected for the Top 10. But it’s an honor just to be nominated, right?


No thesaurus was used in the writing of this post (but I would have used one if I felt I needed to).

Explore posts in the same categories: Rants and ruminations

5 Comments on “bits and pieces”

  1. christophergronlund Says:

    I use a thesaurus in the same manner of you. Words have never come easy for me. More times than not, my dyslexic head knows the word it wants to say, but it just doesn’t bubble up easily. So it’s off to the thesaurus for an “Oh yeah!” moment when I see the word that didn’t make it quite to the surface. It’s like looking down over clear, deep water. You see fish down there, but you’re not sure exactly what kind of fish they are until they’re bright up closer to the surface.

    Words are like that for me. I see the word swimming down there — I know it’s a word. But it’s not until a thesaurus brings it closer to the surface that it clicks.

    I’ve never gone hunting for words in a thesaurus; it’s always been when I know the specific word, but it’s just not clicking.

    Maybe there’s a word for this kind of thing. I’m off to check my thesaurus!

  2. Averil Dean Says:

    I do use one sometimes. It’s not that I’m searching for some flowery word to brighten up my prose, rather that the word I’m looking for is on the tip of my tongue and I can’t recall it. Nothing wrong with that, as far as I’m concerned.

    (Exactly what Christopher said more eloquently.)

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Nabokov used a thesaurus.

  4. Annam Says:

    Oops, didn’t mean to post anonymously, but that comment above was mine…

  5. LauraMaylene Says:

    I have heard that “real writers don’t use the thesaurus” bit multiple times, but I think it just refers to using a thesaurus poorly. Like if you’ve described five things on one page as being “great” and decide to switch it up, so you look in the thesaurus and subsitute “amazing,” “fabulous,” “fantastic,” “good” or something incredibly lame like that. Obviously that’s a horrible way to use a thesaurus. But if the word is on the tip of your tongue — you *know* it’s out there, the one that really reflects your intentions — and a thesaurus can help you get there, then I think that’s fine.

    I will occasionally use Word’s thesaurus for that purpose, and sometimes I let it take me on a fun ride. I start clicking on more and more words, watching as they branch out into entirely different meanings/flavors. It’s almost like a word game.

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