Thursday, April 29, 2010
Words, Words, Words
One aspect of becoming a better writer that I rarely see discussed is building up one's vocabulary. In fact, once you've gotten past the stages of preparing for the SAT (or GRE, or MCAT, or whatever standardized test you decide to stop with), most people never think about their vocabulary again.
Sure, we'll pick up words here and there. Perhaps people who read more will learn more words, perhaps not. We'll hear something in a movie or on TV and wonder about what it might mean.
But how many of us actually work to continue to develop and grow our vocabularies?
As writers, this is something that we should all be working towards on a daily basis. We're always searching for that one word that will concisely and precisely say what we mean, instead of using several words that circle around the general meaning, but never quite fits the bill exactly.
One thing I do to expand upon my word knowledge is keep a notebook by my side as I read. Any time I come across a word that I know, but rarely (if ever) use, or a word that I don't know, I jot it down. And later on in the day, or the next day, or at the end of the week, I look it up in my dictionary. It isn't enough for me to stop there, however. I know myself and how I learn. If I write something down (or if I type it), then I'm ten times more likely to remember it than if I just read it. So, I have an excel spreadsheet set up where I type in my new words and a brief meaning, being careful to explain the meaning of the word in my own words. That is another way I can help myself to remember it.
I'll go into this file every now and then, skimming over the words, refreshing my memory. I also keep it handy when I'm writing, for those moments that I know there is a better word but it isn't quite coming to mind. Then I can quickly scan through my list and see if its there. If it isn't, then I'll use my thesaurus or my dictionary and try to find the exact word I'm thinking of - and then add it to my list.
Another thing I do is study books on building vocabulary. I don't focus so much on the ones that are specialized unless they are geared towards writers. But an MCAT vocabulary guide will focus more on scientific terms that the average person doesn't need to know, etc.
One book I've recently found and like is Word for Word by James E. Snyder Jr. It has words listed in two ways - a more complex word listed with its easier equivalent, and the easier word listed with its more sophisticated equivalent. The best part of this book, in my opinion, is that all the definitions are single words.
Over the years, I've tried word-a-day listserves, but I haven't found one that I truly like. So, instead of having some random person send me an email with a word to learn for that day, I'm trying to focus my own efforts on learning at least one new word a day.
Since I started refocusing my efforts on building my vocabulary, I've noticed changes in my writing. I tend to choose interesting words more often as a first choice, instead of selecting the more mundane and expected word. I think this is a good thing. That's not to say that I want my readers to have to keep a dictionary at hand in order to understand my writing. But as a reader myself, I like to be challenged. I have to assume many readers feel the same way. So, if my broadening vocabulary can encourage others to enhance their own, I feel I've done the world a service.
What about you? Do you still work to improve your vocabulary? What is your method?