Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Spice of Revision: The 1913 Webster Dictionary

There are many stages of the revision process.

1. Re-read your first draft and wonder what the hell you were smoking. Make sweeping changes, re-organize your manuscript, and eat some chocolate to recover from your trauma.

2. Get feedback. Drown in crushing self-doubt. Get a pep talk from a loved one. Go back to your manuscript and make a few more large changes to suit your well-meaning critics.

3. Probably get feedback again, or else lock yourself in a walled chamber and get food through a trap door on a plastic tray. Start fixing the pacing, dialogue, and sentence flow.

4. Give up on life after getting back a line-edited, change-tracked document from your most trusted compatriot. Have your faith in life re-invigorated by the realization that you could die at any moment and wouldn't it be sad if you hadn't finished this book yet? Start fixing individual sentences. Seek out each phrase or word that just feels too plain or too cliché.

And that's when you hit the point I often do: what is another possible way I could say this? How can I pump up this ordinary description, this emotionless word, into something that evokes the imagination of my reader, and pushes this manuscript to that next lofty level of awesome? (Because as everyone knows, first drafts are ugly ducklings and that is okay—they are not supposed to be beautiful and awesome until this draft or you're going to be wasting a lot of your time.)

As I was recommended, I now recommend to you this article by writer/journalist James Somers, titled, "You're probably using the wrong dictionary."

Just go. Just read it.
It’s a subtle difference, but that’s the whole point: English is an awfully subtle instrument. A dictionary that ignores these little shades is dangerous; in fact in those cases it’s worse than useless. It’s misleading, deflating. It divests those words of their worth and purpose.
"ENGLISH IS AN AWFULLY SUBTLE INSTRUMENT." I think I will remember this as long as I call myself a writer–because it's true. Worthwhile writing—good writing—teases out the latent feeling inside words. It embraces their subtler meanings, their innuendos, to firmly place the writer's intent inside the reader's mind.

It's the difference between a sketch and a full-color painting; it's the gap between a storyboard and a movie, an outline and a novel. It's the extra bit of love and care and finesse with your work that can carry a manuscript out of the slush pile on pretty little gold wings.

Somers, eventually, suggests installing the 1913 edition of Webster's dictionary onto your computer, so that you'll actually use it. And it's a good idea. I have an older version of Mac OS X, so I had to follow (some) of the instructions on this page instead.

After using the 1913 Webster dictionary for the last week, I can tell you that Somers is not wrong. We have been looking at dictionaries wrong—both as users and as creators. For example, today I looked up the word "inspire," and found some interesting information.

At one time, "inspire" only meant "to breathe in." It's the opposite of expire, which has come to mean "die," but used to just mean "exhale." And that kind of makes sense, right? Death is when you're no longer breathing. But inspire? Where did that meaning originate?

Some internet sources say our modern version of "inspire" comes from the notion of a supernatural being breathing inspiration into you; that you are literally "breathing in" creative energy from a god or muse. I can feel that, yo.

And just listen to some of this language under the entry for "inspiration": 
The act or power of exercising an elevating or stimulating influence upon the intellect or emotions; the result of such influence which quickens or stimulates; as, the inspiration of occasion, of art, etc.
Unf. I would love to replace "inspires" with "quickens," just saying. There is a word that ought to come back.

So here's what my built-in dictionary app looks like these days. As you enter into that last stage of revisions, and you're looking to pump up your prose a little, give this new way of looking at words a whirl.

Read more of Kiersi's writing advice on her blog, The Prolific Novelista, or follow her on Twitter at @kiersi.


  1. I can totally relate to the stages of revision that you list here. Revision can be a maddening process. And that's very interesting, the original definition of the word "inspire." Certainly makes you think about word choice!

    1. Revision is so maddening!! I think some people like it, but I just wish it all came out perfect the first time. It is fun though as a detail-oriented person to go in and fiddle around with individual words.

  2. I about fell out of my chair reading those revision stages. All too true!

  3. Revision--- why can't the words flow out the right way the first time? Is that too much to ask? Ah, well, stage four here I come!

    1. Woo! You can do it! I think that all the time, though. Revision is a tough thing.