Writers, especially those who are just beginning to write regularly, think that having a good vocabulary means knowing a lot of long, obscure words.
What, they rightly ask, is the point of learning words no one will understand? Who wants to read a blog or other piece of writing that makes them feel stupid?
No one does, but that’s not what having a good vocabulary means.
Writing is Like Cooking
Whether we frequently cook or not, we know that most food tastes better with appropriate spices. Can you imagine pizza without basil and oregano? What would potato salad or fish and chips be without a dash of vinegar?
These are all common spices and condiments. I haven’t mentioned the more exotic spices like coriander, cumin, cilantro, or saffron. A basic understanding of common spices helps people to cook foods that don’t taste bland and uninteresting.
A good writer uses words in the same way.
Knowing the Right Words Keeps It Simple
Say your friend spent an afternoon in court. In describing what went on, he says, “The judge was angry. He kept on pounding with the stick with a barrel-shaped thingie at the top.”
Of course he means a gavel, a word that defines a specific object. The inability to come up with the right word for something is usually less extreme. We use the first word that comes to mind without wondering whether another might better express what we want to say.
A common error is to use more words than necessary to describe an object or an action and write colorless, unenergized prose.
“Sandra saw her little boy standing close to the curb and ran really quickly to catch him.”
Pause for a moment and visualize that. Is there any strong sense of danger; do you sense the mother’s fear?
Here’s one change I could make to that sentence, from “Sandra saw her little boy standing close to the curb” to “ Sandra saw her little boy tottering by the curb.” Tottering conveys a sense of danger.
I would also change ran really quickly to raced or dashed.
Imagine either of these substitutions. There’s a sense of movement and urgency. Really and quickly actually slow down the action of that sentence.
The revised sentence reads, “Sandra saw her little boy tottering by the curb and raced to catch him.”
The sentence has lost three words and gained descriptive power.
Also note that none of the words are exotic or unfamiliar.
Make a Thesaurus Your Friend As You Develop a Good Vocabulary
Many dictionaries include synonyms. When I grew up, the dictionary was never fa from the dining room table. During our family dinners. the dictionary served as the ultimate source of solving disputes about words.
Now, it is easy to look alternative words, whether within MS Word or online sites. You can find several thesauruses online, including Thesaurus.com, but their structure sometimes requires a lot of clicks before you can find the synonyms you need.
I’ve found it easiest to employ Google, typing “synonyms for” whatever word I want. For example, when I typed “synonym for run,” a number of words came up, I directly accessed a listing on Thesaurus.com.. Among others, it included the following:
We can now return to the cooking analogy. What word will best spice up your writing? “Sprint” sounded too casual; while “charge” summoned images of an attacking army. I could have chosen “rush,” or “dart,” but I liked the sound of “race” or “dash” for the sentence.
You may be thinking, “That’s a lot of work for one word. “And it is in the beginning. The beauty of developing a good vocabulary is that you won’t have to go through a lengthy process of eliminating inappropriate words. You’ll store the words in your memory bank and withdraw them as needed.
This process will make your writing so much easier and better. When you learn a new word, you own it; it becomes part of you. You use it naturally, and people sense, even if not consciously, the ease with which you write.
And on a conscious level, they are paying attention to your words because they feel you’re speaking to them.
And that’s what you want.
Pat Iyer MSN RN LNCC is a consultant, speaker, author, editor and coach. She has written or edited over 60 of her own books and worked with a few dozen authors. Pat is an Amazon international #1 bestselling author. Coaches, consultants, and speakers hire Pat to help release the knowledge inside them so that they can attract their ideal clients.
She delights in assisting people to share their expertise by writing. Pat serves international and national experts as an editor, book coach, and a medical and business writer.