I love dictionaries and thesauruses: they’re dazzling and thrilling and useful. I own a ridiculously large number (seven currently on my desk, though most of them are downstairs). I use them, for work and pleasure, all the time.
But now Vineeta Gupta, Head of Oxford Children’s Dictionaries, has asked me a question about them that’s completely baffled me.
‘Do dictionaries and thesauruses help in the creative writing process?’ she asks.
I suppose you can’t blame Vineeta for thinking I’d know the answer. I mean, I’ve written about fifty works of fiction over the years, as well as over fifteen hundred essays about language on my blog The Word Den. But, er, look, I’m really sorry about this, but…um…this creative writing process thing…
The trouble is, you see, that as far as I can see the creative writing process doesn’t actually, well, exist. Now, I’m not pretending that producing a work of fiction doesn’t look jolly difficult – in fact I’d go so far as to say it looks more than difficult, it looks impossible, a bit like starting to build a house from the roof downwards.
But creative writing process? I’m getting scared just thinking about it.
Ah well, luckily you don’t need a creative writing process to produce a book. I mean, making up stuff is a breeze (just ask any toddler). As for the writing bit, well, practically everyone can do that. The really essential thing, it seems to me, is to keep the making-stuff-up and the writing quite separate. After all, one’s an art, and one’s…well, not an art.
Now, am I leading up to my saying something really obvious, like dictionaries help with the science or craft of writing, but not with the creative stuff? Nope. The easiest thing will probably be to show you what I mean.
Now, Nothing comes from nothing, as Julie Andrews sang so affectingly in The Sound of Music, but luckily Vineeta has sent me copies of the Oxford Primary Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary For Schools to add to my ridiculously large dictionary collection (doesn’t everyone need several dictionaries on every floor of the house?) so let’s use one of those to bring something new and extraordinary into existence.
Here I am, opening the Oxford English Dictionary For Schools completely at random a few times, and these are the words I’m finding:
There. Have you got any ideas, yet? No? Well, that’s probably because you’re trying to do the wrong thing. Don’t try to create anything, that’s like trying to knit worms when you haven’t actually got any worms. Try joining things on.
Shortlist…all right, shortlist for what? Choose something you’re interested in: cricket team, talent show, chair, prom dress.
Now. Brash. Who’s going to be brash? The baddy, probably – or else the poor idiot of a hero. Whoever it is, you’ll also obviously need someone to find him brash – a girl, or a boss. As before, whoever is interesting.
Roundly. Ah, that’s good, it looks as if someone is going to take the hero/baddy down a peg or two. Will it be done out of hate, love or frustration?
And then we have jangle. Does this novel feature a dance artist like Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson? Or are all these people Morris dancers? Or is it their nerves that are jangling?
And there we are. One novel. No, all right, it’s not yet completely planned, but something is surely coming into view. And all done with the help of a dictionary. After the creative bit, of course, there’s the writing – but everyone knows about dictionaries and thesauruses and writing.There was wunce a big – enormous – humungously brash giant who had three dorters…
See? Easy. But please don’t tell anyone how easy. I mean, I have to live. OK?
Sally Prue is an award-winning writer for young people of all ages. Her latest novel for Oxford, Song Hunter, won the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award for Historical Fiction. Sally has a daily language blog at The Word Den, and is occasionally to be found on Facebook and Twitter @sally_prue.