Words

Back in the days before online dictionaries — back, for that matter, before the World Wide Web was ready for prime-time — I was the features editor for a weekly newspaper. Editors and reporters worked together in the newsroom. The American Heritage Dictionary sat on top of a midsize bookshelf, within easy reach of everybody.

Some tools of the word trade. Clockwise from top: the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.; Words into Type, my favorite usage and grammar guide; The Copyeditor's Handbook (3rd ed.), by Amy Einsohn; and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.

Some tools of the word trade. Clockwise from top: the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.; Words into Type, my favorite usage and grammar guide; The Copyeditor’s Handbook (3rd ed.), by Amy Einsohn; and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.

Most of my colleagues consulted it, at most, once or twice a day. I, on the other hand, was out of my seat and flipping through its pages so often that I finally brought my own AHD from home. When I was at my desk, it was almost always open on my lap.

My colleagues were nothing if not quick. If they wanted to know how to spell something, or whether a certain word was right for their sentence, they’d holler to me from their desks. I’d holler back. Usually I had the answer in my head. Sometimes I’d look it up to make sure I was right. Other times I’d look it up just because I was curious.

When I left that job, one reporter wrote on my farewell card: “You saved me a year’s wear and tear on my dictionary.”

Ask a writer what tools she uses and she might list her favorite dictionary, usage guide, computer, and so on. (I, of course, would include fountain pens and bottles of ink.) But really our absolutely most essential bottom-line sine qua non tool is words.

Recently I edited a very long nonfiction book whose author had done a commendable job of organizing complex material and marshalling a daunting number of references. On the word level, however, he was somewhat challenged. He regularly confused “affect” and “effect,” which are on just about everyone’s Frequently Confused Words list, but his troubles went well beyond that. An example, chosen at random and tweaked slightly to conceal the original:

These actions revealed the official’s willingness to adjust to complaints about public intoxication. They also  underscored his constancy.

I’ve bolded the words that stopped me in my tracks. Uh, no, thought I. Close but not close enough. For “adjust to” I suggested “accommodate” and for “constancy” “consistency.”

A good copyeditor will catch less-than-felicitous word choices and suggest improvements, but why let the editor have all the fun? The English language is full of vivid, precise, flexible, wonderful words. While you’re writing your first million words, learn as many as you can, Play with them. Notice how words often take on different shadings depending on where you put them. Then go on to your second million and third million words.

While you’re doing it, read a gazillion words. Listen to people talk, even if you never intend to write dialogue — but especially if you do.

Read, and listen to, poetry. Listen to songs. Poets and songwriters are really, really good at making words count because poems and songs don’t have all that many words in them. Try your hand at poetry or songwriting. (No need to write a new tune: pick a traditional one.) I can just about guarantee that your prose will be the stronger for it.