Thursday, May 09, 2019

Two essential writing tools

It's not the wrong word, exactly.
But it's not the right word either. Not really.

Words are your tools.
A painter doesn't use a roller for corner; nor a 1/2" brush for a wall.
(yes, painting metaphors again)

Two essential tools for you:

Notice they are books, not electrons.
I'm a firm believer in actual physical copies of these resources.

I like thumbing through the pages of the dictionary to find the word I'm looking up.
Inevitably, there's a word I wasn't looking for that catches my eye (this is why I mourn the death of card catalogs at the library too)

And the Thesaurus in print gives much more information than the Thesaurus that's part of my word processing program. It's a much more versatile tool.

I open these at least three times a day.

You don't know how valuable these print versions are till you start using them.

Your preferences may vary; that doesn't make you wrong.
But I suggest try it before you say "I know what I like" cause I didn't know how much I loved grits till I went to Texas where folks know how to make 'em for real.


Ellen said...

Yes, I have these actual print books and use them! I also keep a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style close by.

But online sources can be incredibly handy. If I'm in the middle of writing and my brain can't connect with a word, I want a fast answer so my flow isn't interrupted. In that case I pop into

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I have multiple of these in print and use them every day. I love words. I also have an etymological dictionary - I love language and how it evolves. Her majesty is correct. A good dictionary and thesaurus are essential for any writer.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

"A painter doesn't use a roller for a corner; nor a 1/2" brush for a wall."

I have both books.

Do I use them?
Do I have rollers and 1/2 brushes?
Do I covet my Sherwin Williams paint chart?

There's nothing like the smell of latex semi-gloss in the morning.

Pericula Ludus said...

I still remember the look of horror on my father's face when he caught me reading a thesaurus cover to cover, for fun. That was not what he wanted for his little girl. He had hoped I might one day get a proper job and be a normal person. The thesaurus incident was when he finally gave up on those dreams.

Stacy said...

I have both! Totally agree about the print versions.

Claire Bobrow said...

I have both of those sitting on the shelf by my "desk" (aka the kitchen table), but...
I usually go straight to the online sources. Why? Because I figure the computer knows everything! Ha ha ha. Thanks for the reminder to pick up the dang book(s).

MA Hudson said...

I prefer the print books too, for all the same reasons. It's amazing how easily you can find your place again in a print book, just by feel. Impossible in an ebook.

And as for grits, I didn't even know what they were until Donna enlightened me.

julie.weathers said...

My dad used to haunt auctions. On one trip he bought a set of Encyclopedia Britanicas and brought them to me for the boys. They were out of date, but still brimming with great information. When the boys would ask me something, I'd say, "Look it up." Then they'd usually spend an hour or two reading because one interesting thing led to another.

So it goes to a minor extent with dictionaries. I have several, as well as thesauri. "How do you spell this?"

"Look it up. Sound it out and look it up. If you get stalled, I'll help."

The boys have fabulous vocabularies.

Every now and then Will will say something like, "I've had an epiphany," or "it's a conundrum" and I'll say, "I'm impressed."

He shrugs. "Eh, my mother's a writer."

I got in a new dictionary I've been wanting forever. The Language of the Civil War. Yay, me.

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.--Mark Twain

Claire Bobrow said...

Julie: "Look it up." My mother's very words, still ringing in my ears after all this time. My parents had an enormous old dictionary when I was a kid. It was so huge, it had its very own stand in the kitchen. Boy, how I hated to hear, "Look it up," but when I got to the dictionary, I rarely stopped at one word. It also had beautiful, full-color illustrations. I can still see the one depicting gemstones in my mind's eye.

Casey Karp said...

I generally use the online version of the MW dictionary because it's faster (though I do have a print copy as well). For a thesaurus, though, I prefer J.I. Rodale's "The Synonym Finder". Printed. Because it has more flavor than Roget's effort.

And, yes, Chicago Manual of Style graces my writing space. Gotta upgrade to the 17th edition one of these days. Move with the times and all.

Megan V said...

As a child, I lived for Webster's Encyclopedia of Dictionaries. That book was massive, but it also had all the answers. Granted, some of them were a bit dated...

I used to dig it out, followed by the typewriter, and then I was set for the day.

Not all that long ago my dad dug up a book (in very poor condition) typed in the 1800s. It included recipes and doctor-recommended remedies, among other things.

A few personal favorites of mine?

Throwing a bucket of water on someone who's just been struck by lightning.
Getting a dog drunk to cure it of rabies.
And the kicker?
The remedy for drowning. Let's just say no one deserves to experience that.

Beth Carpenter said...

Like Claire, I have the physical books but usually use the computer version. I think I'll make a point of thumbing through on occasion, just to stretch myself and my mind.

BTW, were those grits in Texas made with cheese and green chilis? Because those are the best.

Craig F said...

As writers we can dream larger dreams. Coin a word for Merriam to pick up and pave its way into the English language.

That is one of the Merriam Webster's best things for me. They proclaim new words every year. That old college edition is archaic if you want to make use of those new worlds.

There is nothing wrong with the online versions but one cure for writer;s block, for me, is to thumb through a dictionary until something clicks into the writer's box part of my brain.

CynthiaMc said...

One of Hubby's favorite presents is that very dictionary.

We had a huge wall of built-in bookshelves when I was little and The Book of Knowledge volume 1 to a zillion or so took up several of those shelves.

Mom knew if I had a book in my hand, paper and pencils I wouldn't bother her for hours.

Will N Rogers said...

This post reminded me of a question that came up the other day. What do you all think of using semi-appropriate words in place of technically-more-suitable common words? It's a concept I'm finding hard to explain, but here's an example:

My WIP features a protagonist who likes to use colourful, fun, hyperbolic language with healthy doses of sarcasm and cynicism. Despite being in third person, the prose follows suit (but to a lesser extent), using words that fit the character of the WIP but might not traditionally suit the situation. To give a more specific example, the prose makes reference to a foolish character's dismembered forearm as "discarded" (i.e. intentionally left behind).

Any thoughts? I'm wary of people (especially agents!) thinking it's a mistake rather than a deliberate choice.

nightsmusic said...

I have the Thesaurus plus several variations on the Dictionary, some dating back to the early 1800's (I love antique books, what can I say?) and it's so very interesting to see how definitions change over time. Plus, I love the feel of the paper beneath my hands rather than the plastic of the keyboard.

Just a little something today from Stephan Pastis, a brilliant cartoonist if you don't know him:

Pearls Before Swine

julie.weathers said...

Will N Rogers

This subject comes up time and again when people read excerpts from Rain Crow. I have to decide which battles are worth fighting even if I'm right about the way the language is used for the period. For instance, russia baskets are a type of basket woven in South Carolina not baskets made in Russia. Do I want to battle with people trying to capitalize the word when I could change it to something else like bulrush baskets?

I would think in your example that's appropriate. In one of my diaries a soldier describes going past a surgeon's table surrounded by discard limbs.

As I said, you just have to pick your battles so you don't overwhelm the reader, but a lot of this is world-building.

John Davis Frain said...

Reminds me of James Thurber's wonderful short story, YOU COULD LOOK IT UP. (Hope I'm remembering the title correctly.) We'd all do ourselves a favor to read it again.

Will, you're on safe ground. If it fits your story, and your consistent throughout -- both of which an agent will pick up quickly -- your reader will know it's an intentional device.

You tell your reader early on the type of story they're reading. Someone reading Amor Towle's A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW quickly knows they're in for a different experience than Dean Koontz' ODD THOMAS. It can be the same reader in both cases, but they'll know quickly the story you're presenting. So, if you carry out your plan from the opening scene, you're great.

Keep writing, y'all!

Joseph S. said...

I've had my Webster's collegiate dictionary since, well, college. I find the Roget's Thesaurus too unwieldly but I have three or four more accessible ones (but nowadays I resort to them only when an internet search proves unproductive).

Joseph S. said...

I also refer to the "The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression" by Ackerman and Puglisi.

CED said...

My favorite thesaurus is the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus. It's got some mini-essays throughout, as well as word lists of kinds of words (e.g., architecture styles, colors, plants).

I also like the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology because yay for word histories!

I find this dictionary quite useful, too, but it might be too specialized for lots of folks. =)

Karen McCoy said...

As a librarian, I miss the card catalogs too, but mostly because the online catalogs aren't very user-friendly. I also like the Longman Dictionary because it shows usage examples...

Kate Larkindale said...

My aunt is the best gift-giver in the world. She always gets it right. And for my 21st, she gave me a thesaurus which has sat next to me on whichever desk, in whichever room I've ever written in. It's getting a little grimy and has lost its paper cover, but I still crack it open at least once every day.

Claire Bobrow said...

CED: you made me click, lol. But who knows? Could come in handy one day :-)

CED said...

Claire, I discovered recently that the majority of my stories involve either demons or my MC going crazy. Sometimes both! It made me realize two things: (1) I should probably work on different kinds of stories, and (2) I better know what I'm talking about when it comes to demons. =)

Bonnie Shaljean said...

When I was 13, I remember asking for (and getting) a Roget’s Thesaurus for Christmas. My dictionary of choice was always The Shorter Oxford (two blue cloth-bound volumes nearly a foot tall) because that was Ursula Le Guin’s favourite. The reason, she said, was that it was less wishy-washy - though less wishy-washy than what, I never did discover. I still have them, along with Fowler’s Modern English Usage (a great bathroom-read, BTW) and Brewer’s Phrase And Fable (ditto).

AJ Blythe said...

Being in Australia I have Macquarie versions (although mine is the combined budget edition because that's all the dollars would stretch to).

We also have a beautiful large atlas which we do the "look it up" thing with the Barbarians. Their geography is great.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

I'm thinking of buying Dreyer's English. I've read a few of the sections and I liked its contemporary, authoritative tone.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

That’s on my radar screen too. I’ve pre-ordered the e-book version, which comes out at the end of this month.

Aphra Pell said...

Bonnie - I think we had the same Shorter Oxford dictionary. Two big fat blue cloth volumes from the mid-20th C, printed in tiny text on very thin paper, and full of magnificent words.

Even better, it was edited by one Dr Onions who, when not compiling dictionaries, sired ten children and worked for the Intelligence services in WWI.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Yep, Aphra, that's the one - or rather, the two. Large heavy volumes on Bible-thin paper. But I hadn't known the background to the wonderfully-named Dr Onions, so thanks for pointing out that interesting info. I see he worked alongside Murray - even better!

I <3 <3 <3 this blog. Always learning new things from it.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

"this is why I mourn the death of card catalogs at the library too"

Oh, as a library employee, I sure don't!

We also, with the new director ("new", I think this is her sixth year) got receipt printers, so no more pockets and stamped cards! It changed our lives, I tell you. So much time that we can devote to displays and other special projects. Interlibrary loan is just that easy now....scan a book, you get a slip. Either the person needs a call or they don't, sort accordingly. It's library magic, I say.

Plus, those older card catalogs make great furniture in your house. My aunt and uncle have one full of Grateful Dead concert tapes!