Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series of historical novels, once described her process of building a chapter up from a single element in a scene – in her example, from figuring out from the quality of light passing through a goblet on a table, and the goblet’s color, etc., what room it was in, the characters in it and so on. Although that approach sounds intuitive and easy, you can bet Gabaldon had done tons of research first to inform her micro-to-macro process. The heart of that process holds the key to all good writing: it takes lots of elbow grease to craft written magic. That holds true at every level of a self-help book, novel or other manuscript; you’re likely to make dozens of revisions of everything from the narrative to the story arc to sentence flow and dialogue choices.
Chief among the challenges, even more so than grammar, is knowing when not to use a word like “regrettable” when “regretful” is what you mean, and mastering word choices so you nail the meanings you’re trying to convey. Unlike movies and audio content, the reader doesn’t have visuals or intonation to help get what you mean, after all. To select the best words to set a mood, elevate your voice and more, I’ve collected some primary reference guides and tips for you.
An editor I interned with while covering health topics for the Dallas Morning News eons ago collected old dictionaries, which are a treasure trove for understanding how word usage has changed over time. But hundreds of new words get added to languages every single year, and usages do come into vogue that were previously considered some shade of vulgar. For instance, “they” is starting to be preferred over “he” or “she” in the past few years by everyone from the Associated Press (AP) to MIT Press.
Moving on from that dictionary you picked up during college is a must, then–not just for knowing how to spell a word, but whether it includes a hyphen when used as a noun, whether it should be capitalized, etc. As a default, I recommend Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which is available for free online. It is based on the printed, eleventh edition of this reference that came out in 2017, but the online version gets updated. As noted in a previous post on style guides, a specific dictionary will be paired up with popular style guides, so if you’re using a guide, be sure to know its companion dictionary. For instance, Merriam’s eleventh edition is what The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) links up to (that is, CMOS references the print dictionary, presumably because that’s a static version to refer back to if a question comes up about word usage in the long publishing house process of getting a book birthed).
If, like some of my blogging and non-profit clients, you use The Associated Press Stylebook instead as your style guide, AP favors the word choices spelled out in the fifth edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary (published in 2016). Your particular editor may favor another (likely collegiate) dictionary, however, so be sure to ask what they’ll use to be on the same page. In addition, some publishing houses use more extensive dictionaries for intricate queries, with the mother-of-all references being the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (available in a photo reduced version that requires a magnifying glass, or sometimes online, through public libraries).
For more details on word usage preferences, CMOS (which your library may offer for free online) includes about 50 pages of problematic words. You’ll learn to suss out the difference between “affect” and “effect,” that “usage” should be saved for references to how words are used, and that “utilize” is often best replaced with the simpler “use,” unless the meaning to be conveyed is “the best use of.” Even the nuanced usages of prepositions will be covered, such as that it’s traditionally better to say that someone is an advocate “of” a policy, rather than “for” a policy.
If you can’t access CMOS, the author of their word usage guide, Bryan A. Garner, has his own book called Garner’s Modern English Usage. Note: the CMOS version is leaner and may cover most queries; also, I have the e-book version of Garner’s guide on an iPad with minimal memory, and it takes forever to scroll to a specific word if you don’t peg the correct location in the alphabetical list.
Keep in mind as well that usage guides tend to fall into two camps depending on whether their authors are more traditional in their approach to word usage (aka prescriptivists) or more lenient as spoken language tweaks how words are used over time (descriptivists). Modern American Usage, for instance, will be a treat for authors who like hard-and-fast rules, whereas @jillcoste,an instructor in the UC, San Diego, copyediting certificate course that I aced, noted that Fowler’s Modern English Usage has taken more of a descriptivist approach in its latest iteration.
As a free resource for considering synonyms, I like the search engine at thesaurus.com, and many recommend Rodale’s The Synonym Finder. But what if your conundrum is whether to refer to a graphs as being developed using computer “modelling” or “modeling”? Was the sky “gray” or “grey”? And did a character have an “adverse” reaction to the cough syrup, or was he “averse” to the smell of it? Beyond helping you select the right homophone (words that are pronounced similarly or fairly similarly), dictionaries and usage guides can clarify choices between different spellings of the same word by explaining things such as whether one variant is more popular or not, a variant is the U.S. spelling that might not work for an international audience, and more.
I used to think that the first variant of a word in a dictionary was the most commonly used, but it turns out their placement in entries is often based on which one has initial letters that come first in the alphabet. Beyond whether alphabetization is used for order, check what rules a particular reference book uses to distinguish the relationship between variants. Some reference guides, like Merriam Webster‘s Collegiate Dictionary and its online equivalent, were developed for an American audience, so the American spelling will be listed first. For variants that are equally common, the printed dictionary uses an “or” between them; order plays a role in distinguishing which variant is more common than another, with “also” used before the less common variant that’s listed later.
To understand broad cultural usage preferences of a variant, a DIY tool some editors and researchers use is a search engine called Google’s Ngram Viewer that allows you to look for words, phrases, or even gibberish, in terms of frequency of usage since as far back as 1800. Based on the billions of words stored in Google Books, it is the largest and easiest collection of this type to access, and can be searched to compare British and American English usage, to review usage during a particular time period and more. The engine currently searches usages until 2019.
To check whether you’ve picked the latest slang, the fourth edition of The Copyeditor’s Handbook suggests the Urban Dictionary or Wiktionary. Keep in mind, though, that you have no idea how much care an individual poster on crowd-sourced sites like those spent coming up with their decisions on word usage. That’s why, for example, I avoided Wikipedia when fact checking citations in a health care-related book for a publishing house (a decades-old study found that it tended to have about one more error—4 instead of 3, I believe—per entry than Encyclopedia Britannica did, with the latter considered an acceptable fact checking source by the house).
Grounding Word Choices in You
Considering the meaning your readers will likely associate with a particular word is just one piece of being an accomplished writer, of course. We all favor different ways of saying things, and using your faves when appropriate helps establish your voice. As an example of our uniqueness, @stedwardsu writing prof and poet Sasha West noted at the #WLTUnconference20 that writers tasked to take the same Shakespearean poem and rework the words to have opposite meanings will invariably pick different words. There’s also value in reading your content out loud to “test the line against the music of it,” as West put it, and free software options if it helps to hear someone else read a bit of your text (which I’ll cover in another post). So, keep in mind that the words you choose ultimately still have to feel authentic to you.
Barbra A. Rodriguez