Strong Words: Pumping Up Your Writing With Better Vocabulary

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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 Poets.org 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: taylor@litreactor.com.

Image of Roget&#039;s International Thesaurus, 6th Edition
Author: Barbara Ann Kipfer
Price: $25.10
Publisher: CollinsRef (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 1248 pages
Image of A Visit from the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
Price: $11.29
Publisher: Anchor (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 352 pages
Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words November 10, 2011 - 9:56am

really really really good article (obviously, I could use the help). Much obliged for the tips and exercise - I have pages of words I've gleaned from novels and others. These exercises are a great way to put them to use and keep them in mind. Thanks lots Taylor!

I use the Online Etymological Dictionary for word meanings also - although it's not quite OED.

 

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow November 10, 2011 - 11:17am

Thank you, and good tip on the Etymological Dictionary. I know it helps me to know where a word came from and how it was used in the past. It helps solidify it in my mind way better than memorization or looking up the definition. If you test the exercise on any of those words you've been storing up, I'd love to see what you come up with.

Donacrow's picture
Donacrow November 10, 2011 - 12:18pm

Twice I have tried to enter my comment, but got thrown off...grumble. Two books, battered and well-loved sit on our coffee table: The Synonym Finder and American Heritage Dictionary. AMD known as, (head bowed) THE BOOK OF ALL WORDS. I do not pretend to be a writer. I do marvel at those who can reach for the appropriate word and grasp it. Thanks for feeding my hunger for rich sounding, shapely words. Oh, I am one of those who will 'read' the dictionary. One word leads to another and I am sucked in.

 

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow November 10, 2011 - 1:20pm

Yes, the Synomyn Finder helped me with many an essay (Thanks, Mom!). I also love the feeling of a large book of words, but fell in love with OED Online during college.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts November 10, 2011 - 1:29pm

Good stuff. I love using poetry to get my mind thinking about language in new ways.

I like to believe that choosing the right word while writing is choosing the word that would be most easily interpreted by as many people as possible. I'd like to believe that, but I don't write like that. I have a soft spot for interesting sounding words, and using words in unexpected ways. So i'm a bit flowery. But I don't read dictionaries or thesauruses, actually actively learning esoteric versions of the same concept still doesn't sit right with me due to my previous mentioned belief, despite my vocabulary.

jl85's picture
jl85 from originally East Tennessee now Southern California is reading everything I can November 10, 2011 - 2:42pm

Great article Taylor! I love to learn new words (Infinte Jest kept me on the dictionary app a lot!!) and I try to find ways to incorporate them into writing. I think I am finally going to subscribe to a word of the day email for shits and gigs! On another note though, a great source for writing is Gray's Anatomy for any anatomical writing or descriptions. 

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow November 10, 2011 - 3:07pm

Good point, Josef! Nontraditional references can be helpful, too, especially because they provide context.

I know what you mean, Renfield. I can't say the best word is the most widely understood word. To me, the best word is the one that really conveys the right image, tone, alusion and complexity of meaning. Consider also the alliteration, assonance, length, and rhythm of the word. How do all these add up? All those aspects should be considered when seeking the right word. When done right, I believe, a reader will either intuit the meaning of the word he or she doesn't recognize, or at least be able to read through it without missing the overall meaning. I totally admire poets for this skill and study them when I can to enhance my own prose.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts November 10, 2011 - 7:23pm

I agree, nicely put.

Cody's picture
Cody from Idaho is reading Sherlock Holmes November 10, 2011 - 10:43pm

So far as building a vocabulary goes, the thing that helped me most was slamming down Jack London novels and writing down every word I couldn't define perfectly, keeping them on flash cards dispersed around the house, and skimming over them before writing.  Nice article, I'm really glad you posted it.

Cody's picture
Cody from Idaho is reading Sherlock Holmes November 10, 2011 - 10:45pm

So far as building a vocabulary goes, the thing that helped me most was slamming down Jack London novels and writing down every word I couldn't define perfectly, keeping them on flash cards dispersed around the house, and skimming over them before writing.  Nice article, I'm really glad you posted it.

ilmihub's picture
ilmihub March 17, 2018 - 2:13am

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