When you are reading a rough draft, and you come to a word which seems not quite right to you, or you know there must be a better word but you don’t know what it is, what should you do?
Draw a box around any word which offers an opportunity for improvement and keep reading, says John McPhee, author of Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. Later, go back, and one by one, think about each of those words. He suggests you use a good dictionary, the kind which will not only offer synonyms but which will explain shades of meaning among those synonyms.
McPhee recommends not heading directly to a thesaurus because generally thesauruses list synonyms but do not identify shades of meaning, and it is that nuance that you are probably looking for. However, he says that if you like using a thesaurus, do that, but then look up your chosen word or phrase in a dictionary too. He calls thesauruses “rest stops” on the way to the dictionary.
McPhee also warns against choosing a multisyllabic word when a simple word will do.
McPhee is author of close to three dozen nonfiction books and is a former writer for Time and The New Yorker. He offers advice in Draft No. 4 based on his experience writing for more than 50 years, including how to interview in a way which makes people open up, and how to structure nonfiction so that the structure helps the writer but is invisible to the reader.