In every profession, there are things that allow an individual to do their job more efficiently and thus become essential tools of the trade. When it comes to writing, one of these essential tools is the dictionary.
Sure, given enough time and experience, you’ll be able to coast through writing without ever touching a dictionary but until that time, it is best that you keep one handy whether it’s digital or printed (or what people these days now refer to as the “dead tree” kind). It’s not enough to just have them lying around, of course. Here are some tips for making better use of dictionaries:
1. Make a habit out of using one
Try to replace words as much as you can by using a dictionary. It helps build a habit of using a dictionary and also provides a way of learning new words (or finding out words that you’ve been using incorrectly). This tip is a must if you find yourself relying on the same word over and over again. Just make sure you read the definition and usage of the word, in order to avoid making the mistake of using terminologies that have similar meanings but a different purpose.
2. Pay attention to the pronunciation guide
It is a common misconception that you don’t need to pay attention to pronunciation when writing, because nobody’s saying it out loud, right? The truth is that you still need to maintain tone and rhythm even in writing, because when people read they tend to pronounce everything in their head. This means what sounds stilted verbally will still sound stilted in written form. So, use the dictionary to find better sounding words, or more appropriate ones if the first choices are either too long, or already sound redundant when spoken out loud.
3. Make use of the etymological information
In most dictionaries (at least the ones that are worth buying) the etymological information on the words are provided inside a parentheses after a word. You should read them, because they provide crucial detail about the origin and history of the word. Most of the time, this information will show you whether the word has since changed meaning due to usage, or whether it’s already anachronistic. Simply paying attention to the things inside the parenthesis can prevent many cases of incorrect word usage.
4. Use monolingual dictionaries
If you’re trying to learn how to converse with people while touring a foreign land, a bilingual dictionary is a must, but for normal usage, you should opt for a single language dictionary. There are a number of reasons why: first is that bilingual dictionaries are not as in-depth as normal dictionaries, mainly because they have to cut out a lot of content to accommodate the translation. Second, and more importantly for a writer’s case, is that many words don’t translate easily between two languages (if you’re studying a new language, you need a more specific book than just a bilingual dictionary). It’s common for bilingual dictionaries to give users a translated version of a word without expounding on proper usage.
5. Find the appropriate dictionary
This tip is very important: if you’re having trouble understanding the definitions in your dictionary, chances are it’s too complicated because you have one that is not designed for your level. Find a simpler one until you can move on to more advanced versions. Additionally, you also need to ensure that your dictionary is at least a modern one, as languages are ever changing. If you’re using a dusty old dictionary from the 60s, it’s not going to be surprising if some of the definitions don’t make sense, or are just flat out wrong.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published on e-Books India (the former name of Writing Tips Oasis) in January 2015.