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Love of Lexicon,
Joy of Text

By Lori L. Lake

Perhaps it goes without saying that writers love words. Everything we write is constructed with words, which are the building blocks of our compositions. Particularly as we edit and revise, these building blocks need to be carefully shaped into as perfect a fit as possible, so usage, syntax, and diction should be on our minds as we put pen to page or fingers to keyboard. It follows that access to definitions and to a variety of alternative word choices is critical for all kinds of written communication. A current dictionary and a thesaurus are as important to a writer as building materials and a toolkit are to a carpenter.

Oddly enough, I’ve learned that an unusual number of wordsmiths spend little or no time using a dictionary or thesaurus. Consider this: the words you use in your writing are what create your own specific style, your tone, your unique voice. Why sound like everyone else? With thousands of words to pick from, you can fashion poetry and prose that is different from the writing of anyone else on the planet. Why would anyone disregard using the tools to achieve that?


Do you have a dictionary? If not, get thee to a bookstore! If you do have one you generally consult, take a look at it. What is the copyright date? If it is more than five years old, I urge you to replace it. Every year, hundreds of new words and phrases come into the English language, and many existing words take on expanded meanings. If you’re using a dictionary from college or relying on the old family model (circa 1975!), then thousands of words are missing.

I loved my old college Merriam Webster, a well-used volume that came as a gift when I graduated from high school (back in the Dark Ages). When I got serious about writing, I realized I needed to upgrade. The old book, 960 pages with 70,000 definitions, doesn’t begin to compare with the newer, Encarta World English version, 2,078 pages with over 100,000 entries comprising some 3.5 million definitions, 3,000 black-and-white illustrations, and 10,000 biographical and geographical entries. The newer volume is significantly larger, but it is so much more complete.

It’s a joy to look up any word in the new volume—and a relief to find newer words there. Your dictionary should be current, particularly because the world of words changes so rapidly. Technology, sports, television, advertising, and contact with people in other countries add words and phrases at a fast rate. For instance, my old volume does not contain words and abbreviations such as feng shui, minivan, blog, crank (the drug definition, that is), iPod, TiVo, and ABS. The newer version does. As a writer, you should have a recent resource, with the most up-to-date and accurate entries.

You may receive a dictionary CD program with purchase of a computer, or you can buy various software programs. Some people are satisfied with an online subscription to Merriam-Webster or American Heritage or some other online resource. For only $15-25 per year, these can be very helpful. But what if you’re not at your computer and need to look up words? What if you’re writing longhand on a trip or snuggled up in your recliner? If you want to have the most current database at your fingertips, then an online subscription is a good idea, but for the same price you could also buy a new dictionary yearly (and pass on your old volumes to others who aren’t as picky or thorough as you). I’m partial to having the actual book sitting in my lap where I can page through it, smell the ink, and enjoy the tactile experience of leafing through it.

Spend time with your dictionary. I find it helpful to read words randomly. Savor definitions. Let one word’s definition lead you to another word that leads you to another. Open to any page, point at a word, and free write about it for ten minutes. See what you come up with. Revel in the sound of words and phrases. Play with words. They generate ideas and stimulate your imagination.

Thesauruses (or Thesauri) and
Synonym Finders

The word thesaurus comes from the Greek word storehouse and from the Latin word for treasury. A thesaurus is a treasury far more valuable than many writers realize. Speculative/fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman once wrote:

"You can take for granted that people know more or less what a street, a shop, a beach, a sky, an oak tree look like. Tell them what makes this one different."

This is some of the best advice a writer has ever given, and using a good synonym finder can help you reach Gaiman’s goal. Details, accurate and varied, are part of what makes a story or novel memorable and unique. Why have your character walk down a street when he can stride, pace, tread, hoof it, amble, slog, trudge, wobble, waddle, plod, tiptoe, troop, stroll, saunter, hike, tramp, or meander? Why have your character brandish an ordinary gun when it could be a pistol, revolver, sidearm, rifle, carbine, shotgun, machine gun, derringer, Glock, Colt, Saturday night special, or a piece? Why have a bird merely sing when it could trill, warble, lilt, chirp, serenade, or titter?

Using colorful and interesting words not only allows you to vary your word choice and break up the reader’s monotony, but also helps you avoid overuse of adverbs. Instead of walked slowly, try slogged or trudged; instead of sang in a warbling manner, why not use trilled or warbled? The writing is more economical, the prose sharper, and the image truer to what you mean.

A thesaurus or a synonym finder is a wonderful resource for expanding your word usage. Do you tend to overuse words like big, small, little, young, old, light, or dark? Go to the resource book and find replacement adjectives. Do the same for overused nouns and verbs. You will be surprised and delighted by the array of possibilities.

Other Resources

The more you understand words and their uses and meanings, the more effectively you will write. Do you know the history of English, which remains the most versatile and adaptive of languages? If not, you might want to pick up McCrum, Cran, & McNeil’s The History of English or Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. Are you familiar with the major sources of slang and clichés? You can learn more in Partridge’s Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Rawson’s Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk is also fascinating reading. There are books about regional dialects. You can find out about the lexicon of various activities or professions—everything from archery to zookeeping or law, medicine, police work, and more. Many books are available about etymology, which is the history and evolution of individual words (not to be confused with entomology, the study of bugs).

Final Thoughts

Whether you choose a dictionary from Merriam-Webster, Random House, New Oxford, Encarta, American Heritage, or any other, you can expand your knowledge of language, and I urge you to get a new dictionary and work at it.

The same goes for thesauruses and synonym finders. There are many good resources in that realm, but in particular, I would recommend the following:

Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus: Updated & Expanded 2nd Edition

Twenty-First Century Synonym and Antonym Finder

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms

Roget's Thesaurus of Phrases

I confess that my favorite synonym finder is J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder, which is fairly old. Still, an older thesaurus is not as big a deal as an old dictionary, and the Rodale book is the one I use while I am writing first drafts.

I hope I have inspired you to acquire a new dictionary and start using it. And if you don’t have a synonym finder, try one. For twenty bucks or less, you can add this valuable tool to your resource kit and enhance your word use. Or increase your word use . . . or develop . . . or expand . . . or stretch . . . or augment . . . or—well, you get the idea.

Addendum by Nann: Because of physical constraints, I write ONLY by computer. MSWord has a varied thesaurus, and I make use of a number of comprehensive dictionaries that are available online. But I also keep my updated "paper" dictionary handy as well as the newest versions of both the Chicago Manual of Style and The Gregg Reference Manual. Sometimes I choose a word from a dictionary definition and bounce it around MSWord’s thesaurus, similar to Lori’s suggestions about playing with words. One caveat, if I may: Don’t choose a more complex word just for its own sake. Make sure it says precisely what you mean. Happy hunting!
© 2004 Lori L. Lake

From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.

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