I made on a mistake last Tuesday. I used a word wrong. I wrote the post and sent it live. Then something tickled in my brain that said maybe I should look a word up to be sure of its usage. I looked it up. I was wrong. (Hard to believe, I know.) I hurried to change it, but then I decided to leave it as is to see if anyone caught it. No one did—or at least, no one said anything.
The word? Sensual. Which means, “pertaining to, inclined to, or preoccupied with the gratification of the senses or appetites; carnal; fleshly.” Yes, it can also be used the way I used it, but that’s its fourth or fifth meaning.
The word I should have used was sensuous, meaning “perceived by or affecting the senses.”
Which brings me to today’s tip. Every writer should invest in a good set of reference books—dictionary, thesaurus, and style guide. Learn how to use them. Use them often.
Dictionary: The type of dictionary you need depends on the type of writing you are doing and the type of information you most commonly need. I found a great article on selecting a dictionary HERE. And what do you know? I must be brilliant because I’ve always preferred the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (which was rated as best in this article).
If you’re writing historicals, particularly early Church history historicals, you might want to look at Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. It’s a little pricey, but worth every penny if you want to get your usage correct.
Of course, there’s always dictionary.com, which is better than nothing but I frequently cannot find the word I’m looking for there, particularly if its root is in a language other than English,. Also their definitions are sometimes incomplete.
Thesaurus: Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” A thesaurus can help you find the right word. I like Webster’s New World (Roget’s) but it’s big and clunky, so I often use a little paperback Roget’s. I’ve also heard good things about the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, but I haven’t had a chance to check it out.
Style Guides: The style guide you use depends upon the style of writing you’re doing. My favorite, hands down, is the Chicago Manual of Style. I personally have the 14th edition, and I don’t like some of the changes in the newer 15th edition. But either way, using a quality style guide keeps you safe and it’s easy to change if your editor prefers things to be done differently.
If you’re writing LDS books, you must have a copy of the LDS Style Guide to Publications. This is going to help you with capitalization, hyphenation and other style forms specific to the LDS Church. And it’s cheap!
Once you have these guides, don’t just put them on a shelf. Use them! If you have even a sliver of a doubt about the spelling, meaning of a word or the correct usage of punctuation, look it up. Become familiar with your deficiencies and always, always look them up. One of my weaknesses is the comma. I never can remember if I use one before the word “but”—as in, “I am pretty smart, but I forget when to use the comma.” I know this about myself so I look it up. A lot.
The more clean-up work you do on your manuscript before you submit it, the better chance you’re going to have of being accepted. And yes, I have rejected good stories before because the manuscript was going to take more clean-up time than I had in my budget.