Since I get so many hits on my “Grammar Minute” posts, I’ve decided to start an “Editing Minute” series. They’re really more like 5-Minute posts, but that’s not as catchy a name. This first one points to a nice interwebs tool called “OneLook Reverse Dictionary.”
The concept is a simple one. One of the main goals of the editing process should be to tighten your language. Readers are busy people. A fast way to take them out of your story is to make them stumble over unneeded words. That’s where the reverse dictionary comes in. Unlike a normal dictionary, wherein you look up a word to find its precise meanings and usage, with a reverse dictionary you start at a concept and use the tool to find a more concise or precise way of stating it. Let’s look at a real editing example.
Here’s the original sentence:
“Her hips were barely covered by a tiny, asymmetrical skirt with a split all the way to her waist.”
Now, there’s an immediate marker that my editor’s eye should tell me I need to edit: the adverb, “barely.” Now, unlike Stephen King, I’m not allergic to adverbs, but they do often indicate there’s a better word or phrase that can be used. So, stuck for a word that’s more precise than “barely covered,” I pull up Reverse Dictionary:
The tool is sometimes hit or miss, but right away, the 2nd verb strikes me: “feather.” That’s a possibility. I click on the word, which takes me to a set of dictionaries that I can use to verify my choice.
Blah, blah, nouns, blah, and then to cover, dress, or decorate with or as if with feathers. That’s perfect. I want the feel of something short and diaphanous, and feathering will produce that image. I’m still not done, however. I’m not thrilled with “all the way to” her waist as originally written. Returning to the Reverse Dictionary produces the following:
“Her hips were feathered by a tiny, asymmetrical skirt with a split to her waist.
Much better than the original sentence–it’s more visual and 4 words (21%) shorter. Try a reverse dictionary and let me know what you think.