Alphabetically relearned

DictionaryWhen I started writing, it was with the purpose of clarifying my thoughts. I wasn’t picky. I just wanted to write – to put words on paper, or type words onto a screen, in order to form sentences, paragraphs, whatever it took to create a work worthy of being read.

It was all about effort. About style. About organization and context and reference.

I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know how to do it. Except to write. And write. And write some more.

When I moved into the copywriting field, I had to learn a new skill – brevity. I had to cut down my often rambling, multi-pronged attacks into manageable bite-sized nuggets of condensed goodness, like literary hashish or verbal truffle oil.

Over the past month, I realize my learning has moved ahead, yet again. No longer am I worried about what I say, or how long it takes to say it. Now, I’m searching for the perfect fit – the strongest verb or the least confusing adjective.

And with that, I’ve rediscovered the dictionary.

Sure, I’ve had a copy of Webster’s New World desktop dictionary for years. But to say it’s been used would be stretching the truth. It’s sat there, languishing, neglected as I’ve ignored it’s many uses, smashed together with some other forgotten references, like a too small atlas and a Spanish English dictionary I picked up for fifty cents simply becuase it cost fifty cents.

Instead, I’ve attempted to construct every blog post and brochure copy and short story with only the words in my head. Which is smart – why use words I wouldn’t use otherwise, right? – yet also quite stifling.

Thanks to a recent sudden reference kick, I’m moving forward. I’ve finally read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style straight through. I’ve ordered a new thesaurus for work, and begun browsing through atlases, randomly glancing over South Africa’s river system or Amsterdam’s major thoroughfares. But nothing has resurfaced quite like the dictionary.

I asked for an Oxford English Reference Dictionary for my birthday and got it. You know – the one with the maps and the scientific theories and histories and all of that. (Not the 7500 volume mammoth, though – I’ll leave stuff like that for the Internet; I’ll read those words over at Other Men’s Flowers.) I ordered a new dictionary at work, and I spent about half an hour showing it to people.

“Look!” I said. “It’s got thesaurus entries right there, next to where the regular dictionary entries are!”

I was met with blank stares.

I didn’t care. I’d fallen in love again. And at just the right time.

I’ll admit – I’ve been lazy. I write quickly, and as a result my posts suffer from sometimes intolerable sentence structure, inappropriate adjectives and altogether frightening typographical errors. But I wasn’t interested in all of that at the time – I wanted to get it down and get it out, to put it behind me as published and look ahead to the future, ready to conquer another post or slam out another radio spot.

Now, I’m refining the art. I’m taking whatever talent I’ve scrounged up and I’m honing it – forging it into something worthwhile, like an artisan creating a usable tool out of a lump of dirty earth. I’m focusing on the details and falling in love with the individual words, the etymology and interplay. Each new entry I find is a rich world of usage, a set of letters that has been repeated millions of times before, filled with history and meaning. Each new word I discover has changed a life over the course of the English language, meaning something important to someone, somewhere, for some reason.

It’s unclear, but yet it’s incredibly sobering. The power a book of words can have is staggering when you think of everything that can be done with language. And to have some control over it makes it even more important – and even more necessary to study proper usage.

So while I’ve been lax in the past – and will stumble several times in the future, I’m sure – I’m excited to take the next step, to drill deeper into this act and learn to love every letter, every accent mark. Every word. Every page. Alphabetically or not.

This was lovingly handwritten on November 7th, 2007