Lexicography is a well-established tradition in the West because 'words' have always been the most recognible meaningful units in Indo-european languages so linguistic efforts have always gone into compiling dictionaries to define words (as opposed to a smaller unit, like morphemes, or a bigger one, like phrases).
In Chinese, due to the nature of its writing system and the slightly more monosyllabic nature of both Middle and Old Chinese, the most recognisable units of meaning have always been what are now recognised as morphemes, not words, so most scholarly effort has always gone into compiling dictionaries to define morphemes (or of 'monosyllabic & monomorphemic words', if you will), ie character dictionaries. In this tradition, what we now call Chinese 'words' are viewed as larger units, similar to what compound nouns and phrases feel like in English.
This view has of course changed in contemporary practice, as vernacular Mandarin has completely taken over and linguistic studies have spread. But lexicography is still in its infancy (just think of how rare it is to find the etymology of a word, rather than a character). That means that, in China, little effort has gone so far into trying to advance (and compete in!) the craft of working out how to define words in the most exhaustive AND succinct way possible. Absent that goal, most Chinese lexicographers just go for succint: they offer a distant synonym, some literary examples, and stop there (the fact that such jobs tend to be culturally elitist doesn't help the cause of lexicographic transparency).
So we're left with word dictionaries where most (not all, but most) 'definitions' actually look like they belong in a thesaurus and/or in a quotation dictionary instead - which incidentally may be less commonly used than dictionaries for the same reasons. This situation may change but it will take time: vernacular Chinese has only been in written use for a century or so, native knowledge of words and word boundaries has probably been around for less than that, and it usually takes a couple of decades to 'write' a definition-based dictionary. And this is a job only natives can do. So we shall have to wait for them to keep working at it. Hopefully, current dictionary definitions will in time be expanded and unpacked for the benefit of future generations.
In the meantime, what you're doing is not wrong: cross-referencing multiple word and character dictionaries, as well as sleuthing for examples and translations in different languages, should tell you all you need to know in most cases. And for the rest, there's online forums.