Monday, October 22, 2012
Finding Good Words
One of the changes in writing practices that has come with the internet is easy access online to dictionaries and thesauruses, both of which are indispensable to a fiction writer.
One of the drawbacks of that, in this writer's opinion, is that it's easy to slip into laziness about really searching out words that are not only not cliché, but have the rich background meanings that are just right for the nuances we're trying to convey with our most important tool: our word choices.
I have to admit I'm guilty of not consulting the best sources as often as I need to. I own a copy of the American Heritage Dictionary, the Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus (American Edition), and a copy of OED's sister volume on the origins and development of words, the Oxford Etymology. But do those august volumes do me any good sitting prettily on my writing shelf? Nooooo. These days I seem to expect that the computer should be smart enough to read my needs and give me a pop-up window with all the very best choices as soon as I think, hmmmm, what word would work best here?
Priscilla Long has a few bon mots to say on the subject of using good resources to find your most effective words. In The Writer's Portable Mentor she has a section on where to find good words. Here's what she says (pp. 26-28):
No writer should be without a Very Large dictionary. Would you hire a carpenter to build you a house who had for tools a single pair of pliers? Would you begin a cross-country road trip with one gallon of gas in the tank? No, you wouldn't, but many writers go for years with nothing more in hand than their little college dictionary. (Online app dictionary and thesaurus, anyone?)
Here are the reference books Priscilla Long recommends, with a couple of my own favorites thrown in.
for the true fanatic: Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition, Unabridged, 1934 copyright. (otherwise, a good, more standard Very Large dictionary will do.) Extra words at the bottom of the pages, and elaborate illustrations for many words.
The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. This dictionary traces a word back to when it first entered English [and] gives instances of a word's use from it's earliest appearance to the present. (you can access this dictionary online at the Seattle Public Library so it's worth a try to find it at your own local library.)
At least one ample, argumentative grammar-and-usage book . . . since most dictionaries describe but do not prescribe. Usage manuals prescribe. They fight to maintain the difference between ensure and insure, between that and which . . . They insist that And and But are excellent ways to begin a sentence . . . A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler is an entertaining read. For contemporary work, I would not be without my Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner. (Personally, I prefer the Chicago Manual of Style. It is an invaluable resource for these types of issues.)
It is also essential to have a grammar book. One I like is The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. (Whoa! I never heard of this one before. Am going to have to check it out.)
Finally, Long closes with this insightful, practical and easy-to-use piece of advice:
What guidebooks are to the world traveler, dictionaries, grammars, and usage manuals are to the writer. But gathering words should take you beyond these reference works to other compendiums of words. (My emphasis.) Clothing catalogs name clothes (chinos, cords, boot-cut jeans). Tool catalogs—try leevalley.com—name tools (ripsaw, bucksaw, coping saw, band saw). Go to an art store for types of brushes and names of pigments (bone black, burnt umber). Go to the United States Geological Survey for geographical features such as shrub-steppe, bog, or slough and for spooky proper names such as the Great Dismal Swamp. You get the idea.
Yes, we do, Priscilla. Thank you!!!