The first manuscript
During the process of creating the dictionary, Johnson hired several amanuenses. All in all, Johnson employed six assistants over the years. But they did not work together at the same time. Over the years Johnson had to replace employees because they died.
The main task of the amanuenses was to copy the quotations Johnson had previously marked to illustrate the words. Also, at a very early stage, Johnson ordered them to start with the manuscript of the Dictionary. They transferred the quotations to pieces of paper and put them into notebooks into their approximate place. Today we can only guess why Johnson chose this modus operandi. Perhaps he wanted to test his method. For a very long period of time he was simply working on the quotations without being sure that they would ever be connected to a book. Another idea is that he simply wanted to avoid one step in the procedure of compiling his work. It saved time to copy the quotations directly into the manuscript. Johnson kept marking quotations while one clerk wrote them down into the manuscript and a second clerk copied older quotations from slips of paper into the manuscript. Another reason for his change might have been that the booksellers, who had invested a lot of money into the project, wanted to see results. A manuscript might have been more satisfying to receive than slips of paper with quotations on them and a pile of ruined books.
Finally, they had to concentrate on the deadline. Johnson had estimated himself that his work would be finished within three years. So, the clerks started to construct notebooks.
The clerks started to transcribe the collected material while the quotations not yet copied were written directly into the notebooks, with each quotation in one column. The illustrated word was written on the left side. After the word, the clerks left room for etymology and varieties of usage and than started with the quotation. Afterwards they wrote the first couple of letter for the first word on top of each page to create a guide.
Those notebooks helped Johnson to construct the body of the book. With the help of other dictionaries, especially Bailey’s, Johnson could check where words had to approximately be placed. This helped to estimate the space needed between the different entries. Still, there was a big risk that Johnson would forget a word or underestimated the space needed for the definition. To minimise this risk, Johnson did not stitch the pages together but connected them with a lose rope. However, Johnson was confident that his outline formulated in the Plan was exact enough. The system he developed would allow him to cover the different meanings of any English word.
- the consequential or accidental;
- the metaphorical;
- the poetical;
- the familiar;
- the burlesque;
- the peculiar sense as used by a great author.''
During the forming of this list, Johnson was influenced by two factors. He scrutinized the wordlist in other dictionaries and was highly influenced by Lock, who wrote a book on language.
Though he started without a special order, he began to concentrate on the first two letters after he had started to compile the manuscript. Evidence for this can be found in the Sneyd-Gimble copy. Letters A and B contain more entries and present less empty spaces reserved for later entries.