Custom Dictionaries: Why and How to

The spell check really is your friend. No, your word processor doesn’t know how to spell everything, and it may suggest some bizarre alternatives, but again, it’s pointing out possible problems. Now here’s the trick. When you’re writing an otherworld piece, a fantasy, science fiction, or other variation, you can run into a lot of words that are not in the default business dictionary. However, all is not lost. Word (and most word processors) offers the option of custom dictionaries, text files that contain words you choose to put in there. This serves two purposes: you only have to verify the spelling once by adding it to the dictionary instead of using ignore. Second, when you’re done with your spell check, you can open the text file and compare the entries to make sure the main character isn’t Kitath in most instances but Kiteth whenever followed by an “‘s” for example. In my most recent copyedit, a minor character’s name changed spelling (an “i” to a “y”) in the last thirty pages. Without the custom dictionary, I might have missed the change since that character had been off-screen for some time before those thirty pages. It also provides a simple way of collecting the “unique” words if you choose to have a glossary for your work. All you need then is to define the terms.

To create a custom dictionary in Word 2003 (works with modifications for later versions of Word, and concepts should be similar for other word processors).

  1. Open the Spelling & Grammar screen in Word.
    • Easy way is to deliberately misspell something,
    • Or skip step 2 by going to the Tools menu, select Options and click the Spelling & Grammar tab.
  2. Click Options.
  3. Click Custom Dictionaries.
    • If you have a dictionary file for this novel, uncheck everything else and check only that file (it could be a dictionary file for the series).
    • Otherwise:
    • Click New.
    • Name your file for your novel or the series if special spellings will persist.
    • Click Save.
    • Now back in the Custom Dictionaries list, uncheck everything else then check your new dictionary to make sure all unique words go into it.
  4. Click OK.
  5. If you’re not starting with a blank document (if you are, just add words as you go):
    • Click Recheck Document on the Spelling & Grammar screen.
    • Go back into your document and run spell check.
    • Add anything unusual to your dictionary using the Add to Dictionary option either in the right-click/options menu, or in the spell check dialogue box.
  6. When you’re done with the draft/edit, there are two ways to get to your dictionary file:
    • Navigate through the file system to the folder where the dictionary files are saved.
    • OR

    • Use the back route through Word:
    • Open the Options dialogue using one of the methods in Step 1.
    • Click Custom Dictionaries.
    • Click New.
  7. Find your dictionary file for this book.
  8. Open the dictionary file in your text reader.
    • Double click to open in the default program if in the file system.
    • Select Open from the right-click or options menu if in Word.
  9. You are now looking at a text file with all the unique words in your book.
  10. Select All and Copy the text.
  11. Open a spreadsheet file (Note: You can work straight from the text file, but the sorting features of a spreadsheet can be helpful if your dictionary is large).
    • Paste the list of words into the spreadsheet.
    • The words will already be sorted alphabetically, but sometimes the entries appear at a distance, so scan for different spellings.
    • For Example: Keldir and Kelder will be right next to each other while Celdir and Keldir will not. In a spreadsheet, you can put the same number next to distant spellings and sort by the numbers to compare them next to each other.
  12. Make a list of the incorrect spellings and what they should have been.
  13. Clean up your dictionary list and paste only the row of correct words back into your dictionary file.
  14. Use the incorrect list to search and replace, or just spell check again and the wrong ones should be flagged.
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6 Responses to Custom Dictionaries: Why and How to

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  2. jjmcgaffey says:

    This is exactly how I did (well, not _exactly_) Zette’s Silky books. I found a lot of name changes and such just by putting the first or most common spelling into the dictionary and then running spell check. Immensely helpful to copyeditors as well as to writers!

    • MarFisk says:

      I have to second this. That’s where I figured out the technique–with my editing jobs–but now I use it for my books too.

  3. C says:

    I also found out a side advantage of the spell check. When you invent a name for a place or the character, have you noticed how sometimes you just find something that sounds pretty, without considering at all what word in your language it could be similar to? The spell checker usually suggests some alternative spellings, and in doing this, forces you to see what words the name you invented might remind the readers of. I had some rather idiotic mistakes prevented thanks to that 🙂 (for instance, giving one of my main characters a name that was a bit similar to the French word for “sissy”, which I hadn’t realised at all…)

    • MarFisk says:

      Thanks for posting here too. I think there’ll be others who will appreciate this tip as well.

    • Michele says:

      Really GOOD advice! Thanks for taking the time to post this!!! I’d never thought of it that way. Usually just punch the ignore option and keep going. Now I will take the time to look at those options to see where it might stray from my intention. lol

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