Thesaurus.com: Not Yo’ Momma’s Thesaurus
The scene: Me, writing a blog post for a client. I pop my head up and call to Jess, who is working diligently on something design-y.
“Hey Jess, what about ex post facto?”
“For this blog post. Ex post facto. It’s perfect. Can I get away with that?”
“Daniel, is that Latin?”
“Yeah. But I can’t figure out what other word to use.”
“Um…no, Daniel. No.”
“NO. No one knows what that means. You barely know what that means. Find another word. Give it up.”
This scene repeats itself at least a dozen times a week. I think of a perfect word to use in an article, a direct mail piece, or on a client’s website (ex post facto, profundity, and ebullience, just to name a few). I bring it up and someone smacks me across the head, saying, “Get it together. No one speaks like that anymore. Stop living in Victorian England. Now, whither shall we go for our luncheon, verily?”
It’s a Trap!
I was always steered away from using the thesaurus, both in school and in my copywriting. Most people see it as a tool for incorporating SAT words into your writing. It’s almost always obvious when a writer is doing this, and it’s always a mistake. Why say “exacerbate” when you can use “make it worse”?
I’ve always had the opposite problem: I get attached to the perfect way to phrase something, at the expense of making sure my writing remains readable. “He exacerbated the issue” instead of “He made it worse” because, darn it, “made it worse” just isn’t good enough.
It’s an issue all good writers face: how to balance perfectionism (and a large vocabulary) with making your content readable.
Thesaurus.com to the Rescue
My use of Thesaurus.com has, without question, been one of the main reasons I’ve become a successful copywriter. The site serves the same purpose as a printed one, but with a few key differences. The site is optimized for universal use, not just for students looking to spruce up a term paper.
For example, let’s say I want to look up synonyms for “exacerbate.”
The site gives me a robust list of synonyms (and antonyms).
Once I have the list, I can start playing around with the complexity gauge.
Right now, Thesaurus.com has organized my list by relevance (a combination of both how common the word is and how often it’s used as a synonym for exacerbate). I can also do an alphabetic organization, which is much, much less useful for our purposes. To find the right word, we need to play around with complexity.
At the moment, the more relevant terms appear at the beginning of the list in darker yellow; the more uncommon words appear in lighter and lighter shades of yellow, at the end of the list.
But that’s not good enough for me. I only want to see the words that are going to be most useful for me. To do that, I’ll move the complexity gauge to show just the lowest level of word complexity:
And here’s the result:
When I do this, Thesaurus.com will highlight words of lower complexity and higher reader comprehension. These are the words copywriters can use to keep their writing accessible.
If none of these words work for you, you can go up a level to see which words are on the next rung of the complexity ladder:
Here, that increase isn’t turning up very useful words (who says “This issue is vexing!” these days?), but that isn’t always the case. Experimentation is most often the best means by which one can figure out how to improve a particularly nefarious turn of phrase.
Oops. That should have read, “Trial and error is often the best way to figure out how to make an awkward sentence better.” Thanks Thesaurus.com!
Writing, as you know, is an art form based on precision. The right word can make or break your marketing content. Tools like Thesaurus.com can help you find the right phrasing, whether it’s simple or complex.
What tools do you use to make your writing more accessible? Disagree with my use of Thesaurus.com? Let me hear about it in the comments.