Tips for Writers: Tip #1: Use a Dictionary

I love to read. I love to write. And so, although it happened quite belatedly, it’s only natural that I entered publishing and became an editor. In this and what I hope will be more posts on the subject, I would like to give writers some tips I’ve learned from my years as a reader, a critical and creative writer, and now as an editor of trade and academic texts.


Tip #1: Use a Dictionary

You’ve no doubt heard it many times before, but you’ll have to hear it again: Do not rely on spell-check. Spell-check is an imperfect aid to correcting spelling mistakes. Spell-check (and the thesaurus in word processing programs) does not take into account the use of a very large and expansive vocabulary. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve used the thesaurus in Word and the word is not recognized. Spell-check will not mark as incorrect, for instance, your misuse of such words as “you’re” and “your,” “their,” there,” and “they’re,” “two,” “to,” and “too,” or “its” and “it’s.” These are basic words used in everyday speech that all writers should know how to spell and use appropriately in their writing.

So, Tip #1 is use a dictionary. Go out and buy the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, which happens to be the most widely used among editors and writers right now. This dictionary is usually updated (in print) every decade or so. Two other resources would be the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster’s Geographical Dictionary, Third Edition, which is an invaluable resource with short entries on a vast array of geographical place-names. The cost between the two MW dictionaries will run you about $45, which is pretty good considering the vocabulary-building power of the one and the wealth of geographical knowledge found in the other.


As well as not relying on spell-check, it is best not to rely on online dictionaries as your primary resource for correct usage and spelling of words (unless they are those of a well-known dictionary publisher). I would only use an online dictionary when your primary source is lacking, particularly in the areas of certain slang, the technical, medical, and academic jargon specific to various professional fields, and the new words that are born of the constantly changing Internet and mobile technology, as in the case of social media. The spelling and use of technical, medical, and academic words can no doubt be found in dictionaries and usage texts geared toward individuals in those fields, or learned through the proper educational channels. The language of social media and mobile technology is picked up through the use of those platforms and devices, but can of course be found in online dictionaries. I just Googled “trending,” for example, and was immediately given its definition via the Free Dictionary; thus, this is a case in point where you will not be able to utilize a print dictionary until it’s updated to include such fresh terminology.

In the end, writers should have multiple dictionary resources, including a thesaurus, as well as resources to develop and enhance their grammar and sentence-structure skills. Dictionaries are valuable not just for finding the correct spelling of words, but also for comprehending how to use them in sentences by way of knowing their various parts of speech. In one sentence the word “book” can be used as a noun, while in the next it can be used as a verb. Knowing how to spell and use a word correctly in a sentence is fundamental to the writer’s craft. So, go out there and craft some really beautiful sentences!

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