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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?


  1. Fantastic post, Catherine! I knew it was you as soon as I started reading. LOL!

    I'm very much like you, though I don't keep a spreadsheet of new words - that's a fantastic idea! I do, however, look up new words I come across when I'm reading. I love to learn new words and stretch my vocabulary, and I don't care if people look at me funny when I use the words in real life ;)

    My husband, knowing my love for words, bought me a great vocabulary game for my Nintendo DS a couple years ago. I played it until I had exhausted all the words in the database...I should probably see if there's a second version, because I loved it!

    Great post!

  2. OH, this is a great blog. Thanks for sharing with us. I'll definitely do as you suggest, because I have this problem as well.


  3. Jerrica, there's a vocabulary game for Nintendo? That's awesome. LOL. I may have to look into that one at some point.

    Marie, thanks for stopping by and commenting! My spreadsheet has been a great tool. It's up to over 1100 words now. I think I need to do some paring down on it, taking out the words that I now use without having to look them up.

  4. I use Dictionary.com all the time. In fact, I keep it open while I write. Sometimes the mundane word just isn't quite what I'm looking for but the word I want escapes me. I go to the thesarus screen and search on the mundane word. If I'm unfamiliar with one of the choices, I look up the exact meaning. I tend to remember words once I've seen them. I'm a visual learner.

  5. I love www.freerice.com . It's a charity website where you answer vocabulary questions and for each one you get right, they donate rice where there is famine.

  6. Samantha, I use both Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com all the time, too. They're bookmarked in my web browser!

    And Clarissa, I'd never heard of freerice.com. I'm heading over there to check them out now!

  7. LOL of course the grammar queen loves this post. =P I look up words I run into while I read just because I want to know what they mean. And I use dictionary.com and the thesaurus like Samatha does as well, but that's about it. Just to be the devil's advocate here I believe it was Stephen King who said to write simply because often you will frustrate readers with too many larger words. Not everyone has a vast vernacular as you do lol. I think tossing in the ten dollar word every once in a while is a good thing but if your reader has to look up words multiple times in order to read your book, chances are she/he will just put it down. Sometimes bigger isn't always better. But I do agree that a writer should increase her vocabulary whether she uses it or not. At least she'll have it at her disposal. Great post Mindy and one to really think about.

  8. LOL, Melissa. Yes, I've read that argument from some writers. And I agree, to a point. No one wants to read something where they'll constantly be running to the dictionary in order to understand what they're reading. That's part of what makes textbooks so boring.

    But I think there is also something to be said for using the right word, whether it is the simple word or not. I recently finished reading Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas. The whole way through, I was struck by her use of language. She used more of those "ten dollar words" than many romance authors tend to do, and it suited her style and made her writing richer. Yes, I did have to run to my dictionary a few times. But I like that, as long as it isn't a few times per page. LOL.

  9. One of the things I always loved about reading historicals was the vocabulary I picked up along the way.

    In much the same way they say "writers learn by writing", I credit much of my vocabulary to reading, a sort of learning by osmosis.

    And I LOVE thesaurus.com :)

  10. Thanks for stopping by, Heather! I like that. Learning by osmosis.