Because I’m a writer, when one of my friends can’t think of the right word for what they’re trying to say, they turn to me. “You’re a writer. What’s the word I’m looking for?”
Hell if I know. What do I look like? A dictionary?
God’s honest truth: as a writer, I can never find the right word. This may surprise you. I know it surprises many of my friends. Well, you’d think I would know the right word for each job, judging from my writing skill. But in reality, my vocabulary sucks. I usually know the right word exists. I know I’ve heard it before, or read it before. It’s on the tip of my tongue. But I simply can’t think of what it is.
This is as true of English as it is of other languages that I (almost) know. I usually have little trouble with grammar, even in foreign languages, because grammar is based on a relatively small number of general rules that apply to most words and phrases and sentences, with only a few exceptions. But vocabulary, that’s 228,132 exceptions (and no real rules at all).
No wonder I never write unless I have a thesaurus on hand.
Well, that’s not completely true. When you write your first draft, you should rarely (if ever) go to a thesaurus, because you want to get your ideas out onto the page as quickly as you can. You think much faster than you can speak or type, so you want to get those thoughts flowing and then let them spill out as smoothly as possible. So you pick the first word or phrase that comes to mind, no matter how stupid it sounds, knowing that you’ll be going back and fixing it later (if you even decide to keep it).
It’s during the “later,” during the editing process, that a thesaurus really comes in handy. Because that’s when you rearrange your writing, compact your sentences, put your thoughts in a better order, and choose stronger words and phrases with which to express them.
Here are 7 online tools that I’ve used, and how you can use them to help you find the right word.
But first, a word of warning. You want to be careful not to use these tools to dig up flowery or obscure words that ought to remain buried. Your goal is to say what you want to say in the strongest, most concise form possible. So you want to find strong, specific verbs and nouns, and you want to use strong, specific imagery. Your goal is to paint a picture, not to sound like you have your nose constantly tilted up into the air. So use these tools wisely, to find the right word for the job.
Thesaurus.reference.com has a good online dictionary and thesaurus. (I usually use the built-in Dictionary application on my Mac, though, because it’s readily available and does the job.) You usually know or have already chosen a word close to the one you want to use, and for these instances, a simple thesaurus may be the best tool. So you type that word into the thesaurus and look at the listed synonyms. For any synonym that’s closer to what you want to say, you look up that word also in the thesaurus, and repeat. This way, you construct a list of words that are along the lines of what you want, zeroing in closer and closer to the right word for the job.
The OneLook reverse dictionary lets you look up words by their definition. This is also an invaluable tool, which I always seem to be going back to. When you know what the right word means, but you can’t think of a related word, type in the definition into the reverse dictionary, and it will show you a list of words that are related to the concept you’ve expressed.
RhymeZone’s related-words search finds words that are semantically related to a word or phrase that you type in. This can be useful if you don’t have a feel for the word you want, but you know you need something better than what you already have. The related-word search allows you to start with a word or concept and go to other words using specific semantic relationships, such as synonym/antonym, more-general/more-specific, part-of/contains, used in the same context, or defined-by.
Lexical FreeNet (lexfn.com) also looks up related words, based on a number of semantic relationships. It includes biographical relationships. (So you can go from “George Washington” to “commander-in-chief,” for example, or to “Benedict Arnold.”) And it also includes rhyming and anagram relationships, which you can’t disable (or at least the “disable” feature has never worked for me). Lexfn shows all the related words in a long list, by relationship, and allows you to navigate easily from one to the next.
Lexfn can also search for double relationships. That is, it can connect two words together, in two ways: (1) by finding the “connection” paths between two words, linking one word to the next to the next in order to get from one end to the other, showing each path and all the words along it; (2) by finding the “intersection” of two words, all the words related to both within some number of links, listed in a long list. These features can be useful if you want to find a word that’s related in meaning to both of two different concepts.
The Historical Dictionary of American Slang at alphaDictionary.com searches for slang terms by meaning, with limits for whatever time period you’re interested in. This of course would be useful if you want to find a vernacular term or phrase used in a particular time period in American history.
The alphaDictionary site also has a a list of dictionaries of technical terms organized by field or profession. Such terms usually pop up during research, into whatever field I’m writing about. And when you need to know what a specific word or phrase means in the context of a certain specialty, you need a specialty dictionary or glossary.
The American Sandbox Dictionary of Children’s Mispronounced Words can help you with ideas for your younger characters. An online lexicon is “coming soon,” as they say. But for now, they you can search the site using Google, and it’s fun to subscribe to the RSS feed to find out what pluk, smokinatroll, and blockmustard are. Out of the mouths of babes comes funny! Useful for generating ideas for endearing sayings for your children characters.
Again, you don’t want to write from a thesaurus, neither before nor after your first draft. But if you’re like me and just can’t think of the word you know you want to use, tools like this can be invaluable.