My thesauraus is my frenemy

“You sound like f*cking idiots.”

I joined the Bachelor of Humanities program at Carleton University in 2014. Very early in my academic career, I received the most direct, distressing, earth-shattering feedback I have experienced to this day:

Stop using a thesaurus. You sound like f’cking idiots.

To clarify, the feedback was given to the entire class after the submission of our very first essay of university. There’s also no need for anyone to get upset about this professor using harsh language with fresh, timid first year students. He has been one of the most caring, patient, and humorous professors I’ve ever met. Truth be told, profanity and laughter are effective tools for holding the attention of a room full of young adults.

The reason that this feedback has had such a lasting impression on me, is that I had always considered my thesaurus to be my secret weapon. It was shocking to have my secret revealed, and even more so to learn that it did not produce that effect I had anticipated.

Like most young writers, I assumed that my thesaurus was helping me, by elevating the tone of my prose and translating my writing into an euridite masterpiece. In reality, I sacrificed accuracy for variety, and my professor was not fooled.

The goal of all communication is to convey information to an audience. To that effect, every word and sentence should be reviewed to determine whether it aids in the audience’s understanding and therefore improves usability of the document.

An audience can become confused if the document includes language they don’t understand. This includes jargon or technical terms, as well as overly-specific language.

A good rule of thumb is the classic K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Silly! Effective communication must be easily understood by the audience.

When I read through a draft, I think about each sentence carefully. Some review questions I find useful include:

  • Does the sentence present accurate information?
  • Is the information specific?
  • Is there an easier way to say this?
  • Is my language consistent?

For more information and some helpful examples, I recommend The Effective Use of Language, published by the University of Washington.

This is a lesson I’m thankful to have learned, a habit I’m glad I’ve kicked. As I embark on my journey towards a career in professional communication, I now appreciate that precise language is a crucial element in successful writing.

While I no longer rely on my thesaurus, I now spend a lot of time with my new best friend: my dictionary.

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