Tag Archives: Chambers Dictionary

The Only Two Books a Writer Needs (Part 2)

BookshelfIn the last post, I waxed lyrical about why you need a good dictionary on your bookself.  Have it to hand when you are reading.  Reading is an act of Input that every writer needs to undertake.  And no, its not stealing.  Its looking for inspiration, in the same way that artists study and copy the Old Masters in order to improve.  Reading helps you learn what works and what doesn’t, but more on that another day.

So that’s the Input.  What about the Output?  This is where the next book comes in – the writing part.

The Thesaurus

If you aren’t familiar with thesauri, my lovely Chambers Dictionary describes them as:

“…a book with systematically arranged lists of words and their synonyms, antonyms etc, a word-finder; a treasury.”

If you are serious about making your writing more vivid, you’ll need a Thesaurus.  I was introduced to Roget’s Thesaurus, probably the most famous thesaurus, while still at school, but the technique of using it is cumbersome and it completely foxed me.

Now I use a very nice, fat Penguin Thesaurus, which is alphabetical, and quite thorough enough to meet my needs.  I keep my Roget in reserve, just in case.  And yes, I have finally worked out how to use it properly, but it’s a pain, so I keep things simple.

The nice thing about a thesaurus is that it helps when you can’t think of a word (which for me is a lot!), or are looking for a more sumptuous way of explaining something.  You want a word like ‘magician’, for instance, but are looking for something a bit more, well, exotic.  Dip into your ‘thes’ and you will find:

Sorcerer, wizard, warlock, sorceress, witch, enchantress, necromancer, thaumaturge, miracle-worker.

Mmmm.  Never heard of thaumaturge before!  That’s pretty exotic, as exotic goes.  See what I mean?  Grab yourself a thesaurus and have a moodle about within its pages.  Yes, its perhaps just another way of defining words, but it defines around them too, enriching them in unexpected ways.  It will help you widen your vocabulary but also makes your stories more sumptuous.  As with anything rich, however, don’t go overboard.  Too much cream can make you sick.  Too many adjectives and adverbs (especially) will put your reader off completely.  Its a case of using the right word, not lots and lots of words.  Be vivid, not verbose.

The Others

Yes, there are other reference books I rely on on a regular basis.  I wouldn’t be without my Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, for example.  Or The Oxford Companion to English Literature, and the Chambers Biographical Dictionary.  All of them are fascinating and deeply useful – and not just when you are wrestling with a crossword!  But they are not what I could call ‘necessary’.

A dictionary and thesaurus are as necessary to a writer as a saw and chisel are to a carpenter. On a scale of need, they are prerequisites for the writing life.

As you can see from the picture at the top of this post, I have lots of books about writing.  I promise I will tell you about them in another post.  In the meantime, ferret out a good dictionary and thesaurus and keep them close at hand.  Look up any word you don’t recognise, and also those that you think you know what they mean, but have a lingering doubt about whether you are right.  Write down the ones you really love, and use them.    I promise you’ll have no regrets.

Happy wording,

EF

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The Only Two Books A Writer Needs (Part 1)

BookshelfThe bookshelf by my desk

It’s that ‘Back to School’ time of year, when I can’t walk past a stationery shop without nearly having a heart attack.  Every time I go to Staples, I feel like I want to rip all the notebooks off the shelves and writhe about in them like an ecstatic horse.  The Martha Stewart Home Office line gives me palpitations.

But there isn’t enough money to buy everything I want, and besides, I have cupboards full of notebooks and pens already – how many does a writer really need?

Need is not something we really think about much these days.  It is not a First World problem, because most of have enough to meet our primary needs, and at that point, the word morphs into that seductive, purple velvet lined entity that is ‘Want’.

Want becomes most acute for me when I am in a book shop.  It is very hard to avoid the conviction that that my life will not be complete until I have the latest edition of wotsit, or that Benedict Cumberbatch will fall in love with me, if only I buy that particular tome.  I’m too much the magpie.  I like the latest sparkling things.  It’s a terrible affliction.

My new office space, and all the decluttering that went with it, has focussed my mind on this issue.  How many books does a writer really need?  And more to the point, how many books on writing does a writer really need?

The truth is, horrible though it may be, I don’t really need every copy of every book about writing that comes out.  I can get them from the library if I want them.  I only really need two books:

The Dictionary

In my opinion, no house or building, or even tent, is complete without a dictionary.  A reasonable one.  I’m not saying you have to go out and buy the full length Oxford English Dictionary, which runs to an insane number of volumes, and which only public institutions and Russian oligarchs are probably capable of affording.  You don’t even have to buy the two-volume Shorter version, which is still prohibitively expensive.  Lets face it, you could probably look up the more obscure words that these monsters contain online.

But you need a dictionary.

A dictionary is your friend.  A dictionary provides meaning in the world.  It provides knowledge.  It makes sense.  Even if English is your mother tongue, and you think you know everything it has to offer, believe me, there will always be a seven letter word beginning with L that turns out to be a seventeenth Hungarian stomach pump that you never knew existed.  That’s why I love the English language.  In all its glory, it is like an endless adventure through the Amazon jungle, where thrilling new words are always lurking under unexpected leaves.  And you never know when they might pop up.

Best to have a dictionary close at hand when you are reading.  You never know.  (You wouldn’t believe the number of times my husband has lost his temper with me in bed at night, when I have been reading my bedtime novel and found a word I don’t know – and asked him what it meant.  He’s got a PhD, and wields words like ‘hermeneutics’ on a daily basis, so I assume he knows everything.  He gets a bit short-tempered when asked about seventeenth century Hungarian stomach pumps when he’s sleepy!)

If you are intent on expanding your vocabulary, as I am, keep a little notebook too, to scribble down new words and meanings so that you remember them.

I have a very nice Chambers Dictionary, which my mother-in-law gave me.  It was second hand, but the meanings it gives are accessible, and it has a wide enough variety of words to satisfy my needs at the moment.  It is also a chunky 5.5cm thick, with nice fine paper, and so is a really satisfying thing to handle too.  You can pick up reasonable dictionaries in stationers and book shops this time of year at great ‘Back to School’ prices, but second hand bookshops and charity shops are always a good bet too, because dictionaries are slow to go out of date, and the basics will always be of use.

(Some readers will be bouncing around in their seats at this point, and crying the praises of online and digital dictionaries.  Yes, I get that they are useful, but they do not have the browsing dimension that real books do, and therefore I still recommend you get the hard copy.)

I originally wrote this as one post, but it got so big I decided to split it.  I think it words better that way, and I hope you agree!  So the next post, on Friday, will be about the second crucial book you need to have on your bookshelf.  The thesaurus.

Meanwhile, Happy wording,

EF