Do NOT Use a Thesaurus

November 21, 2017  |   Found in Editorial

An English Major’s Unconventional Writing Tips

No undergrad is more familiar with the struggles of writing an essay than an English major. For someone to inflict this degree upon themselves you would think they came out of the womb reciting Shakespeare or correcting other children’s grammar at recess. While this might be true for some English majors, good writing comes down to practice rather than innate literary talent. This is especially true if you wish to improve your writing so that you can succeed academically. Through sheer quantity of essays written and edited and rewritten and wallpapering my room and haunting my every waking moment, I have learned a few things about essay writing. While not an expert, I hope to share from my own experience as well as the mistakes I see my peers making when I edit their papers.

Do NOT Use a Thesaurus

I think I just heard a chorus of high school English teachers gasp. The conventional emphasis on using a thesaurus comes from a well-meaning place. Anyone who has told you to use a thesaurus while writing is trying to get you to expand your vocabulary. This is a worthwhile goal and the thesaurus does have its place in this. However, often when students realize they have used the word “therefore” three times in one sentence (one crazy, crazy sentence…) they’ll right click on the handy synonyms option in Word and on the drop-down list find the word “whence,” which they’ll proceed to plunk in their essay. Although this word choice may technically be correct, how often do you hear whence being used in modern English? The answer: not enough! Personal vendettas for bringing back archaic language aside, plunking words in your essay on the faith of a word’s appearance on a synonym list alone will create awkward sentences. This is not to say you should boil down your sentences to only words you really know (i.e. it’s generally frowned upon to compose your essay using solely the word “Thursden”). Just remember, if you’re going to use a thesaurus, google the definition of the new word to make sure it means exactly what you want it to mean within your sentence. For example, look up “whence” and you’ll see that it has not been in popular use for over a century (or just try using whence in conversation and see how many friends you still have after?).

So how do you effectively expand your vocabulary? READING! I know this answer is equal in popularity to the answer for losing weight (apparently, not inhaling five plates of wings every time you go to the Den???), but sometimes the obvious solution really is the solution. When you read, you are exposed to how words are typically used in sentences. With this exposure, you will learn when certain words fit in your own writing. If you really want to crank up your vocabulary, you should also look up the definitions of unknown words while you read. This practice will increase your reading comprehension (i.e. actually understanding your textbook readings), while also giving you an example of how to use your newfound word in a sentence.

The more you read, the more words will come to mind while you’re writing. This means your writing will read naturally and you’ll avoid the dreaded “awkward” comment on your essay because you inserted a word that doesn’t quite fit the sentence. You’ll also avoid a comment of “repetitive” because you thought you’d replace every adverb with “whence,” (If you try this, you may also receive a comment of “Are you okay?”)

I realize that reading more is not a quick fix. When your essay is due at midnight and the most you’ve done is chug a red bull and change your font to Times New Roman, you’re not going to delve into the life works of Dickens before starting your essay. Trust me, I know half the time students don’t even finish reading the books their essays are actually on before that looming due date. (Of course, I have NEVER personally done this…). Although I suggest reading as a strategy for improving your word choices, when essay writing gets time sensitive, remember googling the definitions of words is a quick way to ensure your sentences are coherent. Then, at least you are making a fully informed decision before peppering your paper with terms last popular in the 1800s.

For more unconventional writing tips, check out Barbara’s other post: Forget What You Wrote.


Barbara Baker is a fourth-year English major; she can confirm that all it involves is answering increasingly difficult questions about Harry Potter. You can tell she is an English major because she used a semicolon. Was it unnecessary? Absolutely! A breakfast enthusiast and pasta connoisseur, her sole arm workout is holding up books while reading in bed.