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The Precision of Words

“I do love perusing the dictionary to find how many words I don’t use – words that have specific, sharp, focused meaning.” … Geoffrey Rush

Scribe smallIt has been a Mad-Mouse sort of week, jostling me between work well done and pounding my head against an impenetrable stone wall, so I hope you bear with me if I am briefer than usual.

Today, as I was typing away at my keyboard (and deleting and typing anew), I began to think about our writer’s tools. The fact is, as a profession, writing is extremely light when it comes to essential implements. Pen and paper, they’re the basics. Of course, it’s the 21st century, and most of us have exchanged blank bond for a computer screen – to the eternal gratitude of many a pulpwood forest and their denizens. Much as I have come to rely on my computer, the Luddite in me still finds eternal delight in the feel of a fine fountain pen dancing across a pristine page.

Beyond that, the best tool a writer can have is a good dictionary.

A dictionary is a wonder – a good dictionary is a treasure. Between its covers lives the entirety of a language. And make no mistake, a language does live. It grows and changes, grafts on a foreign phrase here and gives fruit to a portmanteau there. It is full of infinite variety and as artful or as sloppy as we choose to make it.

Too often we writers get into ruts. We get comfortable with a primary palette of nouns and verbs and everyday adjectives. When we want to stir things up we simply trowel on the adverbs. Not that there is anything wrong with the everyday. If it suits. Your basic 8-pack of Crayolas can create lovely pictures. But after a while you might just want to increase the linguistic colors at your disposal. Green has its place, but Fern tastes of forest loam and Inch Worm is as warm as a May afternoon. crayola-by-nicole

In an instant, the ordinary flowers into a world of infinite possibilities.

Which brings me to my editorial advice for this week: Never settle for the imprecise simply because you can’t put call to mind the more exact alternative.

Get yourself a linguistic big 120-box of crayons. Use your dictionary. Religiously. The better your vocabulary, the more options you have to say exactly what you mean. Hell, open it at random and jump right in. I do this often, especially with the OED, a lexicologist’s dream. Use your thesaurus, too. While you don’t want your writing to sound like it was written-by-thesaurus, Roget’s tome and its ilk (the Oxford Writer’s Thesaurus is particularly good and accessible) can serve as catalysts for the imagination. When all is said and done, in that “Eureka!” moment as just the right word unrolls across the page, does it really matter the path it followed to get there?


“Webster’s—the original high definition entertainment.” …. Jarod Kintz