Friday, April 1, 2016

Touting the tools of the trade

As one who came of age in the early 1980s, I remember what writing was like before Microsoft Word, spell check, and the Internet. I remember manual typewriters, correction ribbons, card catalogs, and clunky, dog-eared monstrosities called dictionaries.

Even as a newspaper editor as in the mid-1990s, I kept a dictionary close. It was the last line of defense against errors that readers -- usually elderly Scrabble-loving women -- liked to circle with red pens and offer as proof of Western civilization’s decline.

Things are much better now. When I write a book, I can count on a number of Internet resources to make an otherwise difficult task easy and even enjoyable. These resources include not only online dictionaries but also search engines, grammar guides, and specialty web sites that don’t get even a fraction of the love they deserve.

My Elite Eight, ranked in no particular order, are as follows:

1. Google Books: Ever wonder whether a phrase has been used by others, is still in vogue, or is even grammatically correct? This is one place to find out. I often use this tool to see how publishers treat words and phrases. The Ngram Viewer is a nice side feature.

2. Library of Congress: Though I wrote about America's library last year, the institution deserves another mention. There is no better place in the world to get an authoritative answer to a question.

3. Thesaurus.com: If you're a writer who strives to avoid repetition, this is a site you cannot do without. In two or three clicks, you can go from a good word to a great word to one that is perfect.

4. Grammar Girl: There are more grammar sites on the Internet than adverbs in Stephen King’s proverbial road to hell, but few are as enjoyable or helpful as this one. Creator Mignon Fogarty provides useful tips and guidance in language anyone can understand.

5. Wikipedia: Some people consider this Internet mainstay an unreliable ending point. I consider it a useful starting point. Most articles are thorough and clearly written and feature extensive bibliographies that can be used to explore a topic in depth.

6. OneLook: Why search just one dictionary when you can search a thousand at the same time? This versatile tool provides quick, clear results. And, unlike many other dictionary sites, it is not cluttered with annoying advertisements or cumbersome graphics.

7. Online Etymology Dictionary: This is an indispensable resource for any writer of historical fiction. Want to know when carpetbagger and scalawag were first used in literature? OED has the answer.

8. Daily Writing Tips: On the rare occasion I stray from Grammar Girl, I head to this site. Operated by a team of credentialed writers and editors, the resource is user-friendly and highly informative. The contributors regularly tackle grammar issues that others do not.

I recommend these sites to those who take writing seriously and want to improve their craft. They are as essential now -- at least to me -- as the typewriter and dictionary were a generation ago.

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