Review: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

A good dictionary has always been a staple of writers everywhere.  You probably write using Word or a writing program like Scrivener, which both highlight the most common spelling mistakes.  However, these programs don’t know the proper spellings of words that are outside the mainstream, many names, and technical terms.  To know how to spell these less-used words right, you need a comprehensive dictionary.


This is one area where an online tool is quicker to use and may have far more features than traditional book-based versions, assuming that you have an internet connection where you write.

For quickly looking up most words, Merriam Webster Online does a great job.  In addition to the kinds of things you would expect from a full-featured dictionary,  you’ll also find synonyms, related words, antonyms, Spanish-English dictionary, medical terms, and an encyclopedia.

One of the features that I like about Merriam Webster Online ( is its Word of the Day feature.  Sign up and you’ll get an email each day with a word and its definition, helping you to build your vocabulary over time.

Overall, Merriam Webster Online is a great service, but there’s really nothing that I have found that really sets it apart from other online dictionaries.



Product Review: Freemind Mind Mapping Software

When asked if I am an outliner or a discovery writer, I say, “yes.”  I’m a little of both.  When I begin a story, I want to have a good idea of where I’m going, at least for the first several chapters.  I want to understand my characters and their motivations. 

I need a way to capture these kinds of details in a way that is both structured enough that that I can keep track of the kinds of information that fits a pattern as well as flexible enough to be useful to use for many types of tasks.  Freemind is excellent on both fronts.

Freemind is great for outlining, allowing you to branch to an unlimited number of levels, but one of its strengths is that you can close any of the branches you don’t need right now.  You can link to web pages or files saved to your computer, making it a hub for your project research.

Click the image on the right to see a screenshot that shows how I use Freemind to map out scenes.  I also use character templates in another mind map to capture character details.You can define your own icons, templates, and styles in Freemind, so the program is really flexible.  In fact, I have used Freemind not only to map out scenes and characters, but I use it in my day job for client management, tracking to-do tasks, meeting notes, and client information.  I think of Freemind as a free-form surface that I can use for any tasks where I need to outline or other tasks where information branches in a hierarchy.  You can move any portion of the mind map around, making it infinitely flexible during brainstorming or planning stages of writing.Since other mind mapping software can cost up to $500 per user, Freemind’s $0 cost is pretty sweet as well.  I highly recommend it.  Combined with Scrivener, Freemind works really well with my writing process, and is definitely worth checking out.  You can find Freemind here:

Product Review: The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale

As a writer, we sometimes struggle to find that elusive word that’s right on the tip of our tongues, but when we find a descriptive noun or a powerful verb, it’s worth the effort.  In the words of Mark Twain, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” 

In the past, I would reach for my handy Roget’s Thesaurus, but lately, it hasn’t gotten much use since I recently upgraded to The Synonym Finder, by R. I. Rodale.  It’s 1361 pages weighs in at 2.6 pounds (over 1 kg), and works just as well for fighting off an assailant as it is for finding just the right word.  I am astounded at the number of synonyms it includes, both command and obscure.  For example, I opened at random and pointed to the word feast.  I counted 146 different synonyms, ranging from “celebration” to “ring the bell for.”Looking up synonyms is a one-step process, unlike my massive (and now, largely unused) Roget’s International Thesaurus (5th Edition), for which you first look a word up in its index, which gives you a reference number, which you then use to find the actual term for which you want to find a synonym.

I will warn you that this work may be difficult to find in your local book store, but you can find it on, though sometimes you may have to settle for a used copy, since at present, the book is no longer in print.  I read recently that the rights to reprint the book are in negotiations, so hopefully this most excellent resource will be more available in the not-too-distant future.

When I reach for a physical thesaurus, the Synonym Finder is my first choice every time.  If you can find a copy, I highly recommend it over every other thesaurus I have used to date.

The Synonym Finder

By: R. I. Rodale

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