Dictionaries are quaint relics. Most people haven't cracked a paper dictionary in years and instead Google what they need to know. But a writer needs that quaint dictionary lying open within easy reach while writing. It transforms the writer for the better in a way that can't happen online.
Consider two people looking to listen to music. The first opens his phone to an app. Maybe he searches for a specific album or artist, but more likely he lets the machine decide. The algorithm does the thinking and the listener almost immediately lets the music drift into the background.
The second person has a turntable or CD player and a shelf of albums she thumbs through. Maybe she searches for one in particular, but along the way notices other possibilities triggered through browsing. She chooses an album, puts it on to play, and listens. She may let the music fade to the background eventually but begins engaged with the process and experience.
Writers must engage. Creation demands it. Writing this, I'm thinking about words and usage and ideas I want to convey. I'm open to the unexpected. To be engaged, I'm typing in a minimalist editor, full-screen, with my phone turned off. To engage with words, I keep the dictionary open, close at hand. Today I looked up "enmity" for spelling. On that page I encountered ennead, enjoinder, enkindle, enkephatin, and enophile. I didn't read all the definitions -- I wanted to get back to writing -- but the words caught my eye and intrigued me. The language had a tighter grip on me. I felt writerly.
Googling definitions doesn't do that. It's too efficient. I look up words online when necessary, but prefer the inefficient paper dictionary which brings me into contact with other words. I keep the dictionary open next to me so I'm not having to cross the room to find it. Paging through the dictionary enhances my writing. Looking for the dictionary takes me away from writing. Keep it close and open.
At home I have two writing spaces, my basement nook and a desk in the living room. In the nook, the dictionary is open and waiting. I have yet to create space for an open dictionary in the living room and although it is in reach, I don't use it often enough. I'm sure that hurts my writing a little. It's something to fix.
Besides having it near at hand and keeping it open, I mark up a dictionary. I draw a dot next to each word I look up. Looking up "enmity" today I saw dots next to "en masse" and "enormity" in the same column of page 576. It's not every day I come across a dotted word. Today, finding two, I felt connected to the past, the language, and the dictionary. A dictionary is a kind of history of language and our personal dictionaries are the histories of our language use.
Which dictionary a writer uses may come to matter in time, but almost any hardback that lies open will do. At home I have _Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary_ that Mom gave me for college. It's a good dictionary and has become _my_ dictionary, familiar and comfortable. At school I use a large _New Oxford American Dictionary_ that is open within reach of students.
A dictionary can be had for cheap at garage and library book sales. Post to Facebook and a friend will likely give theirs away. Thrift shops have them for next to nothing. Buy one at the bookstore or ask for one for your birthday. It will last the rest of your days and once you've marked it and made it yours, you'll never want to let go of something that has made you the writer you've become.
The dictionary may seem quaint, but it's an essential tool. Writers should dip into it often, scanning for the word they need or aimlessly wandering. Dotting the words makes them ours and leaves a trail as we delve deeper into writing with language particularly suited to our thoughts, ideas, and dreams. If that's quaint, then I'm all for being a quaint writer.