Working with Words: Susan Butler

Image: Susan Butler (supplied)

Susan Butler is the editor of Australia's national dictionary, the Macquarie DictionaryShe talks to us about life at the frontline of language – why she's 'the woman with the mop and bucket', and what it's like reading the dictionary from A to Z.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first edition of the Macquarie Dictionary, published in 1981. Published by Macquarie Library Pty Ltd and distributed throughout Australia.

The community shapes the language and the dictionary simply documents that process. I describe myself, as a dictionary editor, as the woman with the mop and bucket who comes in to clean up after the party is over.

I remember getting the advance copy from the printer and feeling numb, but I took it with me – accidentally on purpose – to a party and started a new party game: what word would you expect to find in the Macquarie dictionary?  Then I had my heart in my mouth as people began to look things up but after half a dozen successes I relaxed. Suddenly I re-found the dictionary I had worked on for so many years.

What’s the best part of your job?

Finding the new words, researching them, writing entries. Answering queries and suggestions from dictionary users. Talking about the dictionary and about Australian English generally in the media.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Publishing deadlines. Every publishing company has them and they are always the same. Too much has to be done too quickly and where did the time go! 

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Giving a speech at TEDxSydney this year on the power of the dictionary. Ten minutes in front of an audience filling the Concert Hall of the Opera House.

The message was that people imagine that the dictionary leads the way in language, judging words to be acceptable or not, to be ‘real words’ or not, and setting the rules for the community. In fact it is the other way round. The community shapes the language and the dictionary simply documents that process. I describe myself, as a dictionary editor, as the woman with the mop and bucket who comes in to clean up after the party is over.

Q is like a sorbet in the middle of the meal – a refresher. R is taxing but S is a killer.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best advice I received came from my father who said to me one morning on the way to work (and school), you can’t half-know something. You either know it or you don’t. If you think you kind of know it, then you are kidding yourself. This stuck in my head for some reason. I think it is excellent advice for a dictionary editor.

Others have taught me how to be succinct when that is required, and how to pitch your writing to your audience. But that first lesson in identifying whether you actually know something or not has been an important one.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

That people read the dictionary from A to Z for pleasure. I have done that often enough for work reasons to find it surprising that people would do it for fun.

My experience is that A and B are fine but C is a bit of chore. You get through that and D, H, I, J, K, and even L are a snack. M is again a bit challenging but you plod on through N and O and conquer P. Q is like a sorbet in the middle of the meal – a refresher. R is taxing but S is a killer. T, U, V and you think – yes – it’s going to be ok. But no. You hit W which is like getting bogged again just as you thought you were safe. Then there is a quick gallop through X, Y, and Z and you are home.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I always thought I might have a career in music and I do a great deal of playing in my spare time.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I think it is like anything. You have to have an innate gift but then you have to work at shaping and training that talent that you have in the direction in which you want to go. To the outsider this comes across as enthusiasm. You spend hours doing something because you love doing it. But those hours are required for deepening your understanding of what it is you want to do and developing raw talent into something special.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Do a lot of it. But of course doing a lot of bad writing doesn’t necessarily make you get better. Look at writing that appeals to you and discover what precisely it is that appeals and then apply it to your own writing. Find a person you trust to read your writing and tell you what is working and what is not working.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. Sometimes the things I want are available online and not in a physical bookshop.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? 

The obvious choice of dinner companion for me is Dr Samuel Johnson who, in a strange kind of way, almost counts as a fictional character, in that he has a persona and significance in the minds of most people that has nothing to do with his real existence. I wouldn’t have to talk at all, because Dr Johnson would prefer the monologue. His monologue, that is. I always suspect that because of his difficulties with engaging with other people, he chose to talk entertainingly and at length as being a safer way of behaving in company, safer than actually engaging in conversation with other people.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Nathan Bailey’s dictionary published in 1732. It showed me how a dictionary can reflect a culture. Indeed, not just a shared culture but one man’s enthusiasms come through loud and clear. Nathan loved science. His definition of 'rain' was a labour of love. Dictionaries can say a great deal about the community for which they are written.

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