Monday 15 July 2013

McPhee on Word Choice: Rethinking Dictionaries and Thesauruses

It is always a pleasure to read John McPhee on writing. In his offerings, one finds unique perspectives on the micro- and macro- processes of writing non-fiction, and personal writerly rules of thumb that do not come up in other how-to tracts for writers. (See my earlier post on McPhee's thoughts on escaping chronology in non-fiction writing). In one of his latest offerings (2013), he discusses word choice. 

He places the moment of concern with word choice not at the beginning of the writing process, nor in the first few drafts, but in what he calls “Draft 4,” the draft which he says is his favorite. During this step, he goes through the manuscript putting boxes around words that seem inadequate. And, just as importantly, around words that are not exactly inadequate but that “present an opportunity” (p. 34). The opportunity, it seems, is for evoking richer connotations as well as more extensive denotations, and limiting both of those in particular ways as well. Quite sensibly, he advocates the use of thesauruses and dictionaries in the face of these inadequacies and opportunities and holds a cautionary attitude toward the thesaurus and its affordances. 

And it is at this point in this unassuming little essay that McPhee's creative take on diction surfaces. “With dictionaries,” he confesses, “I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of – at least ninety-nine to one” (isn’t it most usually the other way around?) and “if you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you” (p. 34) (don’t we normally resort to the thesaurus last, as if to rescue us from the confinement of the limited set of words we would have thought to look up in the dictionary?). But good dictionaries, and not thesauruses, explain the differences in “hues” (p. 34) of words, providing exposition of minute differences between words and between contextual usages. Looking up words the writer already knows expands her concept beyond the one she started with and allows her to re-approach it in its multiplicity.  In “Draft 4”, the process McPhee is aiming at is not one of crystallization of thought or expression, which seems to be the dominant metaphor in any discussion of the writer’s concern for the optimal word. In fact, McPhee is advocating a better capture of the concept through a self-imposed immersion in an array of words, setting the first word the writer chose loose among its peers and listening to their conversations (my comparison, not McPhee’s). The result may be the writer’s very much more informed choice of any one of those peers instead of the original candidate. 

Or, he proposes, it may be the selection not of a near synonym at all, but instead, of the definition itself, or some part thereof. When trying to convey the reflection of sunlight on water as seen from an airplane, he eschewed his first word, “sparkle,” but all of its synonyms, too. So instead of pushing toward concept crystallization into one word, McPhee imported the dictionary definition into his piece, disseminating his prized image into several more banal words that are nevertheless more evocative than the individual word they replace: “The reflection of the sun races through the trees and shoots forth light from the water” (p. 34). Similarly in one of his pieces on canoeing: he did not want to call it “sport,” exactly, nor any of the synonyms available for that concept. So he moves to the very broad concept of “a diversion of the field," discovered in the dictionary. Here we find crystallization rejected once again for concinnity of feeling and conceptual robustness. And again with the word “assimilate” where McPhee opts for one of the word’s dictionary definitions, “ to incorporate into the substance” of another body (p. 35). The result is a unique procedure that furthers the goal of the writer’s quest for “le mot juste,” which in effect is a selection not of “le mot juste,” but of “les mots justes.” Writers who take his advice may never again think about dictionaries and thesauruses quite the way they had before.

McPhee, John. The writing life -- Draft No. 4: Replacing the words in boxes. The New Yorker. April 29, 2013, 32-38.

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