Free tip for young writers: Go to Goodwill and buy a gigantic used paper dictionary for $5 and keep it on your desk. Here’s mine:
All sorts of interesting, serendipitous things happen when you use a paper dictionary, because when you look for a specific word, you have to brush past all sorts of other words before you find the one you’re looking for.
When you really take the time to explore a bit, you see words in context alongside words with similar roots and it can give you a bunch of different ideas. For example, did you know that “patina” comes after “patient”? One word about enduring time, the other describing its residue:
Google won’t help you discover that.
When you’re looking for a word to replace a word in your writing, John McPhee suggests skipping the thesaurus and going straight to the dictionary:
With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.
The dictionary not only gives you a gives you a list synonyms for the word you’re looking up, it also gives you a deeper understanding of the meaning of the word, and sometimes the definition can lead you to a better way of phrasing altogether. (Stephen King: “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.”)
I love paper dictionaries so much I take pictures of them out in the wild. Above is a dictionary I saw in the hallway when I visited the offices of The New Yorker. Below is the little dictionary corner upstairs at City Lights in San Francisco:
The first paper dictionary I remember was this big red Webster’s that my dad kept in a kitchen drawer. When I posted about my love for dictionaries on Twitter, folks sent me their beloveds:
When Alan Moore was asked what was the best book he ever received as a gift, he replied:
That would be the second unabridged edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, one of the first of many marvelous gifts from my wife, Melinda. Aleister Crowley once stated that the most important grimoire, or book of magical instruction, that anyone could ever conceivably own would be an etymological dictionary, and in my opinion he was exactly right. I keep it right here by my desk, and just 10 minutes ago it confirmed for me that I had the spelling of “proprioception” right all along, even though my spell-checker had raised a crinkly red eyebrow. Quite seriously, this is the one book in my collection that I’d save in the event of a fire.
Paper dictionaries are magic. Go get one and use it!