Tools of the Trade

Dinosaur reading dictionary

When I sit down at the computer to write, I like to know that the tools of my trade are handy.

Just as a carpenter heads off to a job with a toolbox containing a hammer, nails, a screwdriver, wrenches and other implements that will help accomplish the job, a writer needs various instruments to create the best possible product. The top three tools in a writer’s arsenal are: 

  • a dictionary;
  • a thesaurus;
  • a grammar guide; and
  • a spell-checker.

 Luckily, in our computerized world, word-processing programs generally come with built-in tools that can go along with me anywhere I take my laptop. What’s not to like about an online dictionary and thesaurus? As I write, I find a dictionary useful when I’m unclear about the nuances of a word or to ensure that the word I’ve chosen to use actually means what I assume it to mean. 

I keep a copy of the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary close at hand when I’m reading, too. It has Canadian words that aren’t found in the average English language dictionary, such as double double (coffee with double cream and double sugar) and two-four (a case of 24 cans or bottles of beer.)

It’s not as much fun to curl up on the couch with a computer, but there are solid online dictionaries, too, such as Merriam-Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/) or the splendid Cambridge Free English Dictionary (http://dictionary.cambridge.org), which allows the reader to choose between British and American English.

 Now, a thesaurus – there’s a tome that a writer can get behind. It’s almost a law of physics that as I compose at the keyboard, synonyms will go into hiding, and my brain will be incapable of finding them. Once upon a time, Roget’s was the definitive thesaurus, but it had a fatal flaw: it didn’t list words alphabetically. Today, there are myriad others whose editors have realized that even though writers may forget synonyms, they certainly know the alphabet. Choose one of those for ease of use. There’s a Gage Canadian Thesaurus on my bookshelf. For online use, the aforementioned dictionaries also offer thesaurus options for one-stop shopping. Make sure to bookmark one of the sites for ease of use. 

Good writers use good grammar, but we’re not perfect. Sometimes, we need to decide whether to use who or whom, or we can’t remember whether to employ “Mary and I” or “Mary and me.” (Hint: It depends on whether it’s the subject of the sentence or the object of a preposition.) 

The grammar book of choice back in the Stone Age of my youth was Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition – they had an edition suitable for students in each grade. I confess: I keep one on my bookshelf, but I am just as likely to use an online service, such as Grammar Girl (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl). There is also Grammarly, (http://www.grammarly.com/) a handy site that will check the grammar in an entire document.

Whoever invented the online spell-checker was a genius! It’s a given that a writer will make errors in typing when writing online, and it’s just as certain that there are words whose spellings haunt writers each time they use one of them. For ages, I was convinced that persevere was perservere – don’t ask me why! 

Thank heavens for the spell-checker. It catches most my typos before it’s too late. However, I do suggest reading through the document again, to ensure you haven’t accidentally accepted any incorrect changes – the human eye is an excellent backup system. 

Don’t leave perfection to chance. Next time you sit down at your computer, whether to compose an email, a short story or an annual report, make sure your work has that professional polish. Bolster your book collection or your online favourites list with the writer’s “sacred trinity”: a dictionary, a thesaurus and a grammar guide. And before you hit the “send” button, run your maserpiece through the spell-checker. Believe me, you won’t be sorry.

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