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Hot revision tip

John McPhee is a master writer and editor. How does he do it?

That’s right, this tip is hot. It comes from writer John McPhee (Coming Into the Country), who shared it in an article in The New Yorker last spring. The article, entitled Draft No. 4, describes his process of revising his writing. I still think about it every time I sit down to revise. The hot tip he passed along? Use the dictionary.

Seriously. He has little use for the thesaurus (“mere rest stops in the search for the mot juste”), but a dictionary, on the other hand, is a writer’s best friend. He sometimes uses verbatim the lines of definition he encounters in the dictionary. For example, he was looking for “a word or words that would explain why anyone in a modern nation would choose to go a long distance by canoe.” After looking up “sport” in the dictionary, and finding 17 lines of definition, he stopped at “A diversion of the field.” His published work contains the sentence: “A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion of the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.”

When I read this and other examples of McPhee’s liberal usage of dictionary definitions in his own work, I was astonished. Wasn’t it plagiarism to do what he was doing? Obviously he didn’t think so, nor did the publishers of his many books and articles. Taking comfort from that, I immediately began working with an absolutely enormous dictionary at my side. Scrivener software for writers has a built-in dictionary function that is handy, but I prefer rifling through the pages of my 4-inch thick book.

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