Create your own thesaurus

A better way to brainstorm words

If you work with words, you’re probably familiar with thesaurus.com. It’s an amazing resource for writers—a gold mine of information.

But how often do you actually find the words you’re looking for?

For me, I’d say thesaurus.com only helps me 10% of the time I go there. Most of the time, I leave feeling hopeless. Wordless. All too often, I can’t find the words I need.

How I feel after a trip to thesaurus.com

Not your typical thesaurus

One day, I was chatting with a writer from Zagat. They wrote reviews for popular restaurants across the country. We chatted about teams, tools, workflows—the usual stuff. But there was one thing she said that really stuck with me.

She said their team made their own thesaurus.

At first, I didn’t get it. Why do you need your own thesaurus?

Well, this wasn’t a typical thesaurus. A typical thesaurus only gives you synonyms—words with similar meanings. If you enter an adjective, like “sad,” you’ll get back adjectives that also mean “sad.”

But the Zagat thesaurus wasn’t based on adjectives or nouns. It was based on restaurant categories, like dive bar, small bistro, etc. If you’re writing about a dive bar, try these words. Writing about a small bistro? Try these words.

It made a lot of sense. If you’re writing about similar things over and over, why start from scratch every time? If you could just pick and choose phrases from a list, writing would be so much easier.

How would you describe a dive bar?

My first thesaurus

For the next few weeks, I kept thinking about this thesaurus idea. At the time, I was a writer at YouTube. As I looked at my projects, I realized I was writing about the same themes over and over. I wrote about watching popular videos, improving your channel, and so on.

I thought this would be a perfect time to create my first thesaurus: a YouTube thesaurus.

Step 1: List common themes

The first thing I did was make a list of common themes that I often wrote about. For example:

  • Community
  • Data
  • Improve
  • Mobile
  • Music
  • Personalization
  • Popular

I started out with a dozen or so high-level themes. Most of my copywriting touched on one or more of these themes.

Step 2: Brainstorm words

After that, I brainstormed words and phrases that touched on these themes. I used thesaurus.com as a starting point, and then I came up with my own phrases.

When I started running out of ideas, I then researched how other products talked about similar themes. That helped me think of even more ideas.

Let’s take “mobile” as an example. What are some words you might use to talk about mobile? I ended up with a list like this:

Words related to “mobile”

These words aren’t exact synonyms of the word “mobile.” But they’re words that you can use when talking about the benefits of a mobile app. I found this list a lot more helpful than anything I could find in thesaurus.com.

Step 3: Start writing!

Once I had this list, it was so much easier to write some quick copy:

  • “YouTube goes where you go”
  • “Bring your music with you and never miss a beat”
  • “All your favorite videos—right at your fingertips”

You get the idea. Once your list is big enough, you can just pick a few phrases and iterate from there. Copywriting becomes a lot easier when you have a list of words to start from.

In a way, this word list became my palette. It was the list of colors I could always start with. If it wasn’t enough, I could always blend phrases together to compose new ideas and perspectives.

A thesaurus is like a writer’s palette

Tips for creating your own thesaurus

Want to start your own thesaurus? Here are a few tips that can help.

1. Start with a few themes

Think about topics that you often write about. For example, if you’re a copywriter, the themes can be the main benefits of your product. For the Dropbox thesaurus, I started with just 6 themes: Access, Collaboration, Control, Productivity, Simplicity, and Safety. Don’t worry about having a comprehensive list at first. You can always add more themes later.

2. Brainstorm as a team

Once you’ve defined your themes, it’s time to brainstorm. For this phase, it’s really helpful to loop in others to help you. Get everyone in a room and have them write as many ideas as they can on sticky notes—one word or phrase per sticky note. Focus on quantity, not quality. Sometimes bad ideas can lead to good ones, and you can always toss out bad ideas later.

3. Build on each other’s ideas

Do multiple passes on each theme. A lot of times, you’ll think of more ideas after you see what others have added. Do multiple rounds of brainstorming until you all run out of ideas.

4. Think about phrases, not just words

Thesaurus.com mostly suggests single words. But single words aren’t enough to convey certain ideas. If you look at the “mobile” example up above, you’ll notice that many of the ideas are phrases, not words. If you’re having trouble thinking about phrases, an idiom dictionary can help.

5. Look inward and outward for inspiration

If you purely use brainpower, you might run out of ideas pretty quickly. Try researching similar companies to see how they talk about their products. Looking at other people’s messaging can often spark additional ideas of your own.

6. Keep it fresh

Keep adding to your thesaurus every now and then. Over time, you might find that you need to add new themes or take out stale ones. If you’re working with a team, make sure it’s easy to add and edit terms. Like a style guide, your thesaurus should be a living document that owners can update anytime.

My tools of choice for any brainstorming session

At a loss for words?

If you often find yourself in a writing rut, a custom thesaurus might just be the thing you need to keep your words flowing. You’d be surprised at how often people write about the same themes over and over again.

Once you have your own thesaurus, writer’s block will hopefully become a thing of the past.


Thanks to Angela Park who first gave me the idea to create a custom thesaurus.