Columns > Published on November 10th, 2011

Strong Words: Pumping Up Your Writing With Better Vocabulary

Original image via Pexels

Where to find the Word

As a Word Nerd, I love discovering new words, new ways to use words, and new meanings for words I thought I knew. Artists in all genres stay fresh and evolve by learning new skills, trying new techniques, and revisiting the classics to learn again. Similarly, writers know the value of constantly building their vocabulary. Writers at any level can benefit from learning new words and new ways to say things. This column will offer a few ways to pump up your vocabulary so you can sound like the smarty-pants that you are.

First step to building your vocabulary:

Read the dictionary…cover to cover…then quiz yourself. If you get less than 70% correct, you must quit writing forever.

KIDDING. I would never advocate reading the dictionary. It’s not feasible, and, sorry old-school-professors and English teachers, but it’s just plain BORING. That said, knowing how and where to look up a word is a good thing. If you love the feel of a giant tome, by all means pick up a hefty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary or Roget’s Thesaurus. But, since just about everything is available online, you can lighten your load a bit by using some of these excellent online resources.

Of course there are many other options online, including Wikipedia and plain ol’ Google (or Google Scholar). I do caution against using just any online source. Cross-check the word in a few places. Not only can you weed out the bogus sites, but you can get an idea of the other ways a word might be used.

I find the best way to build vocabulary is to practice curiosity. Subscribe to a word-a-day service, or just make a point of looking up a random word every so often and throwing it into your writing to see how it works. Look up words you think you know and find out where they came from. The OED is a great source for finding the etymology or history of a word. Look up both synonyms AND antonyms. If you speak another language, translate it and see how it translates. Even if you only took a few years of French or Japanese in high school, this can still be interesting. Building a story around the word can help you remember it in the future.

Instead of reading the dictionary, a fun way to boost your vocab skills is by reading more and reading more variety. Here's a couple ways to branch out:

Get your news from somewhere else

If you typically get your news from Yahoo! (I’ll try not to judge you), navigate your browser to The New York Times or The Washington Post for a more challenging read.

Drop that fashion mag

Try The New Yorker, Harpers, The Altantic Monthly, or any magazine that does more than reprint the AP stories about cats reunited with their families or what the Real Housewives are complaining about. Grab a great literary magazine like Granta, McSweeney's, Tin HouseMissouri Review, or one of the many others out there.

Read books that you typically wouldn’t

My husband likes to read a lot of books that I would never choose for myself, but I read them when he’s done. Not only do I learn something (he tends toward historical and psychological genres), but I’m forced to read from a vocabulary and style I might typically avoid. Read the classics, too, and not just because some of them are SOO GOOD, but because older books use a different set of vocabulary. You can learn a lot about the roots of words by reading older works that use them differently.

Read poetry

No really. Even if you “don’t get it” or "don't really like it," the poetic format forces brevity and economy. Poets must use the best word for the job for every word of the poem. They are masters of vocabulary. I was reluctant to read poetry for a long time until I took a class in college that challenged me to unfold the words in the poem one at a time and work at them like a puzzle. This helped me really appreciate the art of poetry and I leaned a whole load of new words like "numismatic" or "sublunary" (look 'em up). If you want a mind bender, pick up some Paul Muldoon or John Donne . Better yet, browse and see what interests you.

Enough blabbing, now you do it

This week, I challenge you to do a little reading. Stick your head into your bookshelf or anyone’s bookshelf, for that matter, and find 2 or 3 words that either

  • you’ve never heard before
  • you know, but haven’t seen used in a certain way, or 
  • that you think is being used in a unique or especially perfect way.

For each word do the following four steps:

  1.  write the sentence you saw it in and name the work or article it came from
  2.  explain why it stood out to you
  3.  define the word
  4.  write your own sentence using the word

Here's an example of how to do this activity:

  1. I chose the word “miasma” from the book A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Here’s the original sentence from page 32.

He’d been relieving himself on the can in what must have been (although Bennie’s brain ached to recall this) a miasma of annihilating stink, when the unlockable bathroom door had jumped open, and there was Abby, staring down at him.

  1. I picked this word because it seemed to be used in such a perfect way. It’s not a word I’ve seen used often, and I felt that this particular usage was appropriate. The heavy consonants of the “m” and “sm” give the word a thick, palpable quality, similar to the thick, offending smell that it’s describing. The alliteration of the ‘i’ ‘a’ and ‘n’ sounds seem to drag out the image to give the idea of a truly encompassing odor.
  2. Definition (from Merriam Webster):

mi·as·ma (noun): 1) a vaporous exhalation formerly believed to cause disease; also : a heavy vaporous emanation or atmosphere <a miasma of tobacco smoke> 2) an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt <freed from the miasma of poverty — Sir Arthur Bryant>; also : an atmosphere that obscures : fog

  1. Here is my own sentence:

Even from the front porch, Evelyn’s nose itched as waves of cherry vanilla ice cream, pumpkin spice, and Dutch apple pie wafted through the screen door; she took one last breath of fresh air before entering the miasma of sweet smells that emanated from every Yankee Candle-covered shelf and Glade Plug-in-infested outlet of Lynnette’s home.

Please pretty please, post your findings here. We can multiply our learning by sharing what we find. Or you can email me directly:

Get Roget's International Thesaurus at Bookshop or Amazon

Get A Visit From the Goon Squad at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

Similar Columns

Explore other columns from across the blog.

Book Brawl: Geek Love vs. Water for Elephants

In Book Brawl, two books that are somehow related will get in the ring and fight it out for the coveted honor of being declared literary champion. Two books enter. One book leaves. This month,...

The 10 Best Sci-Fi Books That Should Be Box Office Blockbusters

It seems as if Hollywood is entirely bereft of fresh material. Next year, three different live-action Snow White films will be released in the States. Disney is still terrorizing audiences with t...

Books Without Borders: Life after Liquidation

Though many true book enthusiasts, particularly in the Northwest where locally owned retailers are more common than paperback novels with Fabio on the cover, would never have set foot in a mega-c...

From Silk Purses to Sows’ Ears

Photo via Moviegoers whose taste in cinema consists entirely of keeping up with the Joneses, or if they’re confident in their ignorance, being the Joneses - the middlebrow, the ...

Cliche, the Literary Default

Original Photo by Gerhard Lipold As writers, we’re constantly told to avoid the cliché. MFA programs in particular indoctrinate an almost Pavlovian shock response against it; workshops in...

A Recap Of... The Wicked Universe

Out of Oz marks Gregory Maguire’s fourth and final book in the series beginning with his brilliant, beloved Wicked. Maguire’s Wicked universe is richly complex, politically contentious, and fille...

Reedsy | Editors with Marker (Marketplace Editors)| 2024-05

Submitting your manuscript?

Professional editors help your manuscript stand out for the right reasons.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.