Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer, Part 3

Last week I posted another blog in a series of highbrow lectures about how little ol’ you can be more like Ernest Hemingway. Not that I have the slightest clue. But these days, who gives a #@!% about whether or not anybody actually knows what they’re talking about? Full steam ahead.

On to the business, then.

Let’s talk about references. When I was earning my wee business degree at a school that I can decidedly recommend against attending, I nevertheless picked up more than one useful thing for all the tedium and money expended. One of these was a grammar guide. It’s laminated and three-hole punched for your convenience, and tells you all about how to use pronouns. And other useful tidbits. I recommend finding something like this at, say, a college bookstore.

Another useful publication that resides happily on my shelf is this: The Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions (Shaw, Harry, McGraw Hill, © 1975). This book tells you when to use farther versus further, the difference between hung and hanged, lay and lie, than and then and so on. These are all handy things to know, and they make you look far more intelligent than you actually are. I use it ceaselessly and obviously to great effect.

While we’re talking books to have on hand, we really need to, as professional writers (or at least people who fancy themselves professional writers), build our own library, starting with our very own reference shelf. To that end, I suggest starting off with a quality dictionary. I mean an actual paper one. The older the better (those old ones have such nicely groomed words in them; they never chew gum whilst speaking). I have one from the 1950’s and an unabridged Webster’s from 1890. At one point or another, you’re going to outgrow the stupid and clunky Encarta tools that Microsoft builds into its Word application, and you’re not going to have anywhere to turn if you’re not prepared. I’m warning you now. These older dictionaries are really handy, by the way, for writers of historical fiction or steampunk.

We can include in this vein of reference materials a quality thesaurus. Contrary to what most ignorant bumpkins might think, these are alive and well, and not in fact extinct.  I have a youngish one; it’s paperback and about thirty years old, and already segregated at the binding around the l-m area. So I must treat it carefully. This, again, is an indispensible tool for writers looking to find another word for “suddenly,” or, “therefore.” I’m told by an accountant friend of mine, who was highly irritated as she read through the Twilight books, that she suspects that’s mostly what Stephenie Meyer did especially in books two and three of the series: right click>synonyms in order to make things more interesting. I’ll leave it to the peanut gallery to decide whether or not, as Stephen King has asserted, “She can’t write.”

Now that I’ve worked in a King reference for three weeks straight, I’ll call this a perfect finish.