i. Make Friends with your Dictionary
Of the resources available to poets, the first and
most important is a dictionary. Many people know little
about how to use a dictionary, beyond looking up a word
and finding what that particular dictionary says it means.
A good dictionary is a record of a group of educated
people's adventures in tracing words' histories and uses.
If the dictionary has College in it's title, it is likely
to tell more about the words than just superficial
definitions. When you look at dictionaries in the stores
ask the clerk to unwrap one of each type so you can
examine it. The better dictionaries are likely to be shrink
wrapped to protect them from damage. You can not
examine a dictionary in such wrap. You have the right to
see what you are contemplating buying. Don't ever buy a
dictionary you haven't been able to examine. The
samples on the back cover may be of a little help to you
but don't trust them to be typical of the interior.
First, look for the different pronunciations of
words. The one listed first is the most widely preferred
pronunciation among the scholars who produced the
The next thing to look for in the dictionary is the
origin of the word. Somewhere in the dictionary, unless it
is a children's dictionary, there is a list of abbreviations
for the various languages of origin. For example, if a
word is taken from an Old English word it will say OE. If it
is French it will say FR. IE indicates Indo-European.
When you learn the different origin and language
of each word you may discover why the word has very
different meanings in its different uses. You may also
discover new similarities between seemingly unrelated
There are often interesting similarities in the
relationships between certain letters. The word one, for
instance, is uno in Spanish and ein in German. The
vowels are different but the consonants are all the same,
'n.' In Finnish the dental sounds, d and t, and popping
sounds, b and p, are combined, rather than separate as
in English. Poika, the Finnish word for boy, or son, may
be pronounced more like poy than boy, but the similarity
can be seen.
A good place to look for dictionaries when you are
online is yourDictionary.com or Dictionary.com
Next, the dictionary will give several definitions or
usages common in English. If the dictionary is American,
it will tell of common usages in the US. If it is a British
dictionary it will tell of usages on that side of the pond.
Spellings are often different on the two sides of the
Atlantic. Color and humor, in the US, are colour and
humour in the UK. Also, there are common differences in
the hissing or buzzing sound. Civilization in the US is
civilisation in the UK.
ii. Make That Dictionary Work Hard
There are many uses for dictionaries just as there
are various kinds of dictionaries. Although I don't read in
foreign languages, I keep dictionaries that translate from
each language to English. I don't use them for
translating, but for looking further into word origins, and
subtleties of the word's world-wide use. I have been able
to find these books at used book stores.
There are many specialized dictionaries, including
science, computers, slang, regional speech, art, music,
and others. There is probably a dictionary for each of
your special interests.
A note of value to poets: older dictionaries will
give you older usages, which you might not find in newer
ones. If you are looking for a word from a classic poem,
you might do better to look in an old dictionary if you
don't have access to the several hundred dollar Oxford
English Dictionary. I always look closely and consider
buying old dictionaries I find in used bookstores. See if
you can get your grandmother's old discarded dictionary.
It may have lost its covers but still have a lot of heart, just
You can find the many-volumed OED at some
public libraries. Remember that the OED is a British
dictionary and is likely to be of much more value in
traditional literature categories or tracing the history of
old words. For searching technological or popular
American culture references, a specialized dictionary
may be much better.
Don't forget to examine the special features in the
front and back of any good dictionary. Don't stop with just
iii. Get Prehistoric or Modern Similes from a Thesaurus
A thesaurus is a valuable book for poets. It is a
book of similes. It has been said that there are no
similes. Every word has shades of meaning that
distinguish it from all other words. A thesaurus will give
you a list of other words that have somewhat similar
meanings that may enrich your poetry.
A useful thesaurus must have a great degree of
redundancy to be well cross-referenced. If you can't find
your word in the thesaurus, think of a similar word and
look it up. Then look up each of the closest words you
found. You may have to chase a word around a few turns
in a thesaurus to find the one you seek.
iv. You May Want a Rhyming Dictionary
You can get a rhyming dictionary that gives you
words to match your rhymes. Such a dictionary can be
very helpful if you write chiefly rhymed forms.
v. Learn the Name of Your Reference Librarian
Other resources for poets include a good library of
poetry classics and modern poetry as well as current
issues of poetry magazines. Various kinds of reference
books are of value to writers. Encyclopedia are good for
historic references as are college textbooks. Travel
books or reference books in your special interest areas
are also helpful.
The public library or college libraries are useful
and often available to the public free. Don't be
intimidated by colleges or college textbooks if you know
how to read. Introductory college materials are easily
understood by most readers. Colleges are just places
like malls, that sell stuff. The stuff they sell is information;
but they are happy to sell it to anybody. Abraham Lincoln
taught himself law by reading on his own. If you can't
afford college, feel free to read their books.
Reference Librarians are valuable friends to a
writer or researcher. Don't hesitate to ask questions and
tell your research needs to the reference librarian. You
may learn to use a library better.
Reference books may clutter your work area if you
have limited work space as I do. I often find it convenient
to take some of my work to the library where I can spread
out for awhile and do some study or writing among a
greater variety of reference materials.
Luckily, many libraries also have internet
computers; so you can grab some quick searches online
for items more available online than in the library stacks.
vi. Searching the Internet and Bookstores
A Quick Search Tip:
If you are looking for an organization online, a
quick way to search is to just type in the name of the
organization or acronym as BMI in the location finder
rather than taking extra steps through a search engine. If
it doesn't come up, type in the rest of your domain such
as http://www.BMI.com. Then try ending with org or edu if
necessary. As the World Wide Web becomes larger and
more complicated the search utilities keep learning to do
more. The next step is to learn the different search
engines. A good URL that contains an abundance of
search engines is:
Christian Search Engines
If you don't know how to use boolean modifiers,
try to learn. Boolean modifiers are found in many forms
such as the use of the word AND and NOT the use of &
and | or the use of + and - for including or excluding
words. Different search engines use one or another of
the combinations. Learn what modifiers are used by your
vii. Become a Student of the Language
I like to use word play as an amusement; so I read
books about the history and development of the English
language. Every writer needs style books and English
textbooks of quality. If you have a good textbook from
school days, don't lose it. It may prove useful as a
An advantage of a textbook over another similar
book is that you have studied it and are already
somewhat familiar with where to find information in it. As
you use it more it will become even more useful. I have
an art history textbook from college that has been a very
useful reference in later years for identifying the art of
various periods. It was made much richer by an excellent
Poet's Market, by Writer's Digest, is a valuable
place to find publishers, and The Official Netscape
Guide to Internet Research is good for exploring this
valuable resource. There are probably similar resources
for other browsers. Strunk and White's little book, The
Elements of Style is required reading for writers of any
kind. It introduces the writer to many basic problems to
consider, and solutions to practice, in making yourself
understood without ambiguity. (See the URL at the end
of this chapter.)
viii. Every Poet Loves Poetry Links & the Used Bookstore
There are many books available on the history of
the English language. One I have enjoyed greatly is 'The
Mother Tongue, English and How it Got That Way' by Bill
Bryson. It offers new insights into the language. Another
interesting book for any writer is Miss Thistlebottom's
Hobgoblins, a book about outmoded rules of English
usage, by Theodore M Berenstein. 'Miss Thistlebottom's
Hobgoblins' is out of print, but well worth tracking down
through a bookstore who finds out of print books.
If you are still stuck in the rules you learned in
elementary school and have learned nothing new about
grammar, this book is for you. It can help set you free
from rules that are made for children to get them started.
Grammar is much more complex than can be
comprehended by the rules alone. Learning them is the
first step. The next step is understanding them. After that
you have to learn what to do in situations where two
rules may be in conflict or there are no rules to cover the
Almost any bookstore will help you find such a
resource if they do not do such searches themselves.
Also if you are any kind of surfer, try finding it on the
ix. Don't be Intimidated by Experts
If you can drive your car and pay your taxes, you
have some expertise. Don't be intimidated by people who
know something you don't. Your expertise is in the things
you know that they don't. You have to follow your own
nose when you are in the woods. The rules you know
when you start out are the ones you are stuck with for
most of the trip.
Even the spell and grammar checker on your
computer probably doesn't know all the words you do.
Nor does it know when to use their, they're or there.
You have to learn those things somewhere else. If
you are unsure of the usage of such words, look them up
in the dictionary. It will tell you the uses or parts of
speech they represent. In a poem the use may often be
intentionally ambiguous. You should still try to learn how
others are likely to take it.
Look on the Internet for a list of commonly
misspelled words or commonly misused words.
Don't get caught not knowing when to use lose
and when to use loose. Lose is the one that is most
commonly used as a verb. Loose is more commonly
used as an adjective. Don't go off like a loose cannon
and lose your mind.
Go ahead, disagree with any of the books or
experts if you are pioneering. But remember that the
paths have been there for thousands of years, and often
for a good purpose. The experts also disagree among
themselves and it's worth the effort to learn their reasons
before you reach your own conclusions.
Resources are only valuable if you choose to use
them. Pick the ones you enjoy and the ones you will use.
You are always in charge of what you write and where
you allow it to be published.
The resources are best used to help you reach
your chosen market or readers. If you write it, you can
find someone to read it. If you want to reach a wider
readership, you may have to familiarize yourself with
their needs and interests and their language
preferences. In the meantime, keep writing!
Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. Bartleby.com: Great Books Online