Using Synonyms: Creating Literary Gems With Rich, Varied Word Usage

I have a confession to make: when writing any paper, I have a dedicated tab open on thesaurus.com to help me come up with ways that will help my ideas flow seamlessly together. Indeed, a good writer is supposed to come up with their own ways to creatively express themselves. However, I suffer from a common problem: word repetition.

Every author that has ever tried to string together a comprehensive text eventually runs into a problem; we sometimes tend to write in a way that more closely reflects how we speak, rather than in a way that creates an easily readable and enjoyable text. There’s an important difference to note here.

Whereas documents are (supposed to be) written in a style that entices the reader to keep going, spoken language is an entirely different beast. When speaking, it’s common to use certain phrases repetitively – in such situations, we have the advantage of inflection, body language, and facial expression to helps to emphasize our ideas more clearly.

Writing doesn’t have that advantage. The closest tools we have in English to an indication of sentiment are emojis and they are rarely appropriate in anything except the most informal settings.

To counterbalance this, a good writer tries to use varied words with more or less the same meaning in his or her texts. Searching for synonyms is important when writing anything. If you use too many of the same words or expressions, you can get into slight trouble.

I once wrote an article about the history of diuretics including known drinks and food which elicit a powerful urge to urinate in a large number of users.

I had just started as a freelance writer and it was my debut for a new client. I did my very best with the article and read a variety of history books about food, googled myself drowsy, and interviewed a local college professor.

In all my zeal, I overlooked something important: I didn’t have a dynamic use of language. I got the first version back from the client with the remark:

The article is well put together, but you really have to find synonyms for diuretic.

I went back and checked the article and was started to realize I had made a beginner’s mistake. I used ‘diuretic’ 25 times in a six-page article. It would be similar to listening to a broken record repeating the same note over and over again; you’ll bore your readers. From that point, I’ve made it a central focus of my writing to avoid any kind of repetition.

Tools That Will Help You Vary Your Language Use

Like a skilled chef who also keeps a cookbook in his or her home to continually hone their skills, a professional writer may find access to a powerful thesaurus that can breathe some life into their work useful. Remember not to stray too far though; variation is good, but you also don’t want to completely alienate your audience. I caught myself using ‘ribald’ as an alternative for ‘naughty’ once before asking myself: who really talks like this?

Substitute Phrases For Words

Another way I like to vary my phrases is by substituting a commonly known phrase for a word. For example, you can refer to canines as both dogs and ‘man’s best friend’ and the vast majority of English speakers will know what you’re talking about. It has to flow naturally though, and if you find yourself in a situation where you’re saying ‘I took my man’s best friend for a walk’, you’re probably doing something wrong.

The Rule of Three

I think it’s normally okay to use a word up to three times in a paragraph without looking for synonyms. For example:

The cat seemed to have enough of the dreary heat and was willing to do anything for a snack. While prowling around the streets of Bombay, a large noise coming from a particularly dark alley startled the cat. True to its feline nature, the scared cat bolted and only later contemplated the potential loss of a meal.

Example of the Rule of Three, Anta Osotsi

In the above paragraph, even though I’ve only used ‘cat’ three times, I kind of feel like I’ve stretched the word to its limit and threw in feline as a synonym. After this point, it would probably be wise to use something else instead of ‘cat’ and may perhaps give it a name. You don’t have to stick to this rule if you’re not comfortable with it. Only use it as a guideline if it is useful.

Be Careful With Synonyms

While some words can appear to have the exact same meaning in a particular context, they can sometimes change the overall tone or nature of your work if you’re not precise. The important difference between certain expressions can affect your writing in ways you weren’t prepared for:

I loved eating pizza. In fact, I was the college champion of eating them. I could eat an entire large pepperoni snack in less than 3 minutes.

These sentences don’t necessarily logically follow each other. A pizza isn’t really a snack, it’s a meal. It sounds a little bit deceptive to equate them.

In conclusion, you don’t have to stifle your creativity when using synonyms, but neither should you feel like every single phrase of your work has to originate purely from your mind-space. Thesauruses can be incredibly handy when you’re struggling to find a way to join a paragraph together. Just be careful to craft your work in a manner that is consistent and you will have a happier, more productive time writing.

Any comments or thoughts about using synonyms? Post below and I’ll answer!

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