10 Strategies for Building Your Writing Vocabulary

Diane Callahan
Jul 22, 2020 · 13 min read
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Having a wide vocabulary gives you more than just the smugness that comes from knowing “aglet” is the name for the tiny piece of plastic at the end of a shoelace. It’s about finding the right word — the one special word in a sentence — that will transmit an image or feeling directly into the reader’s mind.

For example, Daniel Wallace uses the word “carapace” in his novel Big Fish:

“He’s lived his whole life like a turtle, within an emotional carapace that makes for the perfect defense: there’s absolutely no way in.”

The turtle simile provides context clues: it must mean “hard outer shell.” An emotional carapace. The specificity gives the description more weight, more energy.

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Not long ago, I didn’t know the color of heather, or that sconces were a thing, or what the heck a bandolier was. Knowing the names of flowers, light fixtures, and weaponry allows authors to deliver both precision and flair.

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Let’s look at ten strategies we writers can use to expand our word knowledge.

1. Keep a Vocabulary Journal

Reading is an obvious vocabulary builder. But what do you do when you encounter an unfamiliar word?

  • I might rely on context clues to figure out the probable meaning.
  • With an eBook, I’ll use the built-in dictionary.
  • If I’m reading a physical book and don’t want to bother Google, I’ll write the word on a Post-it Note to look up later or skip over it entirely, if it’s not important for understanding the sentence.

For me, the issue with this approach was that most of the words were never encoded in my long-term memory. I knew it was unrealistic to memorize every new word I encountered, so I decided to try a different tactic:

  1. I’d look up the definitions as I went along, but I’d only write down the words I could see myself using in my own writing.
  2. I’d pick the three most interesting ones from my list, open the document with my vocabulary journal, and take the time to really get to know those three words.

My vocab journal includes the original context, dictionary definition, etymology, usage in the news, and a practice sentence. Here’s part of my entry for the noun “vellum.”

Original Context

I came across it in a short story by Paolo Bacigalupi entitled “Moriabe’s Children”:

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Dictionary Definition

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “fine parchment made originally from the skin of a calf.”

Etymology

It originated around the 15th century and is related to the word “veal,” or baby cow.

Usage in the News

A 2016 headline read, “Why is the UK still printing its laws on vellum?” The answer is that vellum lasts a long time, and it’s reported that “original copies of the Magna Carta, signed more than 800 years ago on vellum, still exist.”

Practice Sentence

“The founders agreed that the laws must be written on vellum so even civilizations a thousand years hence would know the decrees of their predecessors.”

At the end of the year, I reread all of my practice sentences to further cement these new words in my memory. Now, I feel more comfortable using those words in my fiction.

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2. Use Flashcards

Quizlet is a great free resource for flashcards that can be used across its website and mobile app. You can make your own or find sets other people have created; I recommend searching for SAT or GRE vocabulary. Quizlet has a matching and testing feature so you can practice your knowledge.

Magoosh provides a set of curated GRE vocab flashcards, and its Vocabulary Builder is a fun app for testing your word knowledge through multiple choice.

I’m fond of Brainscape’s GRE Vocab Genius app because you can rank how well you know a word on a one-to-five scale. Based on your rating, the app will make the word appear more or less frequently until your confidence increases.

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You can always go old-fashioned and write paper flashcards, which I still like to use when I want to scribble down mnemonic clues. For example, I learned the word “extemporaneous,” meaning something that’s improvised or made up on the spot, by associating it with a word of similar meaning: spontaneous.

3. Learn Word Roots

Digging up word elements, such as Latin roots, can help you dissect individual words to understand their meaning.

Take the word “antebellum.” “Ante” means “before,” and “bellum” denotes “war.” So, “antebellum” means “before a war,” although it’s most often used to refer to the plantation-era South before the American Civil War.

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You can then use this knowledge to better understand words that share those elements, such as “antecedent” and “belligerent.”

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4. Start Your Day with a New Word

Many online dictionaries have an email sign-up where they’ll share daily definitions. The WordoftheDay app tells me a new word every morning; it displays a basic definition and example sentence so that I don’t get lost in etymology or start opening new tabs left and right.

Sites like Merriam-Webster also host a number of fun word games and quizzes you can use to test your knowledge and learn peculiar words.

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5. Delve into Specialized Terminology

Sometimes the story demands that the character know how to ride a horse or that the reader can paint the landscape based on words alone. Every hobby or field of study comes with its own set of vocabulary. Learning that “native language” and applying it to your stories can better convince the audience of your world’s reality.

You’ll likely encounter the terms you need to know while you’re conducting targeted research, but pay special attention to the words your sources use in discussing the topic. Be sure you know exactly what the terms mean and in what context to use them.

For instance, I often see fiction writers use the terms “clip” and “magazine” interchangeably when talking about guns, whereas most people with firearm experience say there’s a distinct difference: the clip loads the magazine, and the magazine loads the gun.

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It might help to make a list of the specialized topics that will crop up in your book: Gothic architecture, rare gemstones, human anatomy, classical music.

In their techno-thriller Relic, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child clearly did their research to make the lab work sound believable, although I can’t attest to the scientific accuracy myself. The descriptions are filled with terminology that’s still understandable:

“She picked up the first plant with tweezers, slicing off the top portion of the leaf with an X-Acto knife. In a mortar and pestle, she ground it up with a mild enzyme that would dissolve the cellulose and lyse the cells’ nuclei, releasing the DNA.”

The important takeaway here is the visual and the purpose. We can visualize the character grinding up the leaf for the purpose of releasing the DNA, but the added jargon demonstrates the character’s expertise.

Reading articles and books on these subjects, talking to an expert, or even taking online or in-person classes can acquaint you with the necessary jargon. When you understand a field’s basic vocabulary, it’s easier to determine what search terms you need to use to learn more. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know.

6. Start a Word Bank and Word Hit List

Even when we build our vocabularies, we don’t use all of the words in our arsenal, leaning more heavily on some and entirely forgetting others. As Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools, says:

“All of us possess a reading vocabulary as big as a lake but draw from a writing vocabulary as small as a pond.”

This is why I keep a word bank: a list of verbs, adjectives, and nouns I already know the meaning of but that I don’t use often.

Verb Bank

  • squelched (make a soft sucking sound such as that made by walking heavily through mud)
  • weltered (to roll, toss, or heave, as waves or the sea)
  • scrabbled (to scratch or scrape, as with the claws or hands)
  • careened (to rush forward in an uncontrollable way)

Adjective Bank

  • gossamer (something light, delicate, or insubstantial)
  • vermilion (a brilliant scarlet red)
  • lurid (gruesome; glaringly vivid or sensational)
  • blubbery (abounding in or resembling blubber; puffy)

Noun Bank

  • promontory (a high point of land or rock projecting into a body of water)
  • regalia (rich, fancy, or dressy clothing; finery)
  • cultivar (a variety of plant that originated and persisted under cultivation)
  • ruffian (a tough, lawless person; bully)

In addition to a word bank, I also keep a word hit list. This not only covers annoying filler words like “just,” “that,” and “very” I can often delete, but also personal habits that need to be replaced — unusual words or phrases I’ve caught myself using more than once in the same story.

When a word is ingrained in our vocabulary, it basically becomes invisible. Even though it sounds normal to the writer, it sticks out to the reader. To me, words like “cacophony,” “maladroitly,” and “susurrate” call attention to themselves, so if an author uses them twice within the span of a few chapters, I’m going to notice.

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It’s easier to see these sore thumbs when we’re reading another person’s writing rather than our own, which is yet another reason feedback from critique partners and editors is so valuable.

All writers fall into the habit of using certain words. In the book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, author Ben Blatt analyzed what words famous authors used most frequently, which he refers to as “cinnamon words,” named after Ray Bradbury’s tendency to use the word “cinnamon” disproportionately more than other writers.

For Agatha Christie, that list featured “inquest,” “alibi,” and “frightful.” Toni Morrison’s cinnamon words are “messed,” “navel,” and “slop.” Many famous authors are guilty of relying on the same clichés across their works, with Salman Rushdie using “the last straw” and Dan Brown “full circle” in over half their books. It’s not a bad thing to have cinnamon words, but make sure you’re not recycling clichés when you could be finding fresh phrasing.

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7. Double-Check Definitions

Part of a writer’s vocabulary growth is determining when they’re misusing words and discovering alternative definitions of familiar words. It’s good to get in the habit of double-checking word meanings when you’re not one-hundred-percent sure. My word choice errors often come from me assuming I know the meaning of a word because of how it sounds.

For example, I always thought “nonplussed” meant “unbothered” or “unimpressed.” In the United States, it does hold that meaning colloquially, so I was confused when I encountered sentences where it held almost the opposite meaning. The original definition implies that someone is “so surprised or confused as to be at a loss at what to say, think, or do.” Merriam-Webster includes this example from Harry Potter:

“Cedric looked nonplussed. He looked from Bagman to Harry and back again as though sure he must have misheard what Bagman had said.”

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Many times, I’ll catch myself saying or writing a word that feels right but that I’m not sure I could define. That’s when I know I need to look it up, just to be sure. Be wary, and check the dictionary.

8. Know the Relationship Between Diction and Tone

In general, your diction should match the character’s voice or the story’s narrative tone.

When writing a story with strong character voice, especially first person, you can pay special attention to their vocabulary. If the character has an interest in nature, their vocabulary list might include words like metamorphosis, parasite, glacial, molting, stemmed, blossomed, and germinated. They might use figurative language that conceptualizes the world in a way that’s familiar to them: “she was like a morning glory, only opening up when times were bright.”

Create a list of words or phrases that particular character would use.

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When it comes to narrative tone, you can focus on how your word choice changes the story’s atmosphere. Take a look at this straightforward sentence:

“The creature moved across the floor.”

The word “moved” is a little plain — it doesn’t add much to the visual. You can change the verb to convey more detail about how the creature moved:

“The creature scuttled across the floor.”

To me, that’s creepy; this is a horror story now. You can almost hear the tapping of its numerous legs as it runs. But say that this is a cute creature, and you want to show that it’s endearing:

“The creature bumbled across the floor.”

Aww, it’s stumbling around, all awkward and clumsy. Now it’s more of a comedy.

You can replace “plain” words with ones that give the reader more information.

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9. Practice Moderation

Building your vocabulary is not about seeing how many fancy words you can pack into a single sentence. Like Mark Twain once said, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” Moderation is key. In fact, using only one or two stand-out words in a sentence will generate more power.

Let’s compare two examples. The first:

“A blubbery woman wearing gossamer regalia in lurid vermilion squelched toward the ruffian scrabbling for cultivars, who then weltered and careened off the promontory.”

The second:

“A woman in a lurid red dress sped toward the boy. He stumbled away from his plants and careened off the cliff’s edge.”

It’s hard to visualize or even parse the meaning of that first sentence. In the second, the only unusual words are “lurid” and “careened,” while the rest are quite simple, conveying the image more directly. Avoid piling on adjectives and verbs when you can convey the same idea with one well-chosen adjective and one well-chosen verb.

Much like Mark Twain, George Orwell believed writers should “never use a long word where a short one will do.” But throughout the pages of Nineteen-Eighty Four, you’ll find words like “etiolated” and “palimpsest.”

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Stephen King shares a similar message in his ever-popular book On Writing:

“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”

Yet King himself doesn’t seem to shy away from sesquipedalian or eccentric verbiage. In Misery, he poetically compares Annie Wilkes’ expression to that of a patient in a mental asylum:

“The word which defined it was catatonia, but what frightened him had no such precise word — it was, rather, a vague comparison: in that moment he thought that her thoughts had become much as he imagined her physical self: solid, fibrous, unchanneled, with no places of hiatus.”

Orwell and King have expansive vocabularies, and it shows in their work. With their advice, I think what both authors are saying is that readers can tell when a writer is trying too hard to sound “smart.” If you go against your natural tendencies, then the flow of your writing will suffer. Play to your strengths and build your vocabulary in a way that enhances your unique style.

Writer Alex Suchman of Quora phrases it beautifully:

“Rare, impressive, or sophisticated words have to defend themselves. They have their place — capturing the perfect shade of meaning, or hitting just the right emotional note (or lacking any simpler synonyms) — but you should never use them to show off or prove how smart you are. If you constantly send your reader to the dictionary it detracts from your writing and discourages them from reading more.”

10. Try a Vocab Writing Exercise

If you’d like to further flex your word muscles, you can try creating a “vocab story.” I’ll give you three words, and you can see how to fit them into a one-paragraph story:

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Language can feel limited in its ability to express thoughts, but the more words you have at your disposal, the more opportunities you have to distill ideas into a digestible form.

Whatever you do, keep writing.

Fellow logophiles, what’s a new word you’ve learned recently? Tell me where you found it and what it means in the comments.

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This post was adapted from a video on my YouTube channel Quotidian Writer. You can watch the full video below! Calling my YouTube channel “Quotidian Writer” works twofold:

  1. I am a writer who strives to write, in some form, every day.
  2. I don’t claim to be some magical writing guru who knows all — I’m an ordinary writer stumbling through the learning process and trying to make my voice heard in the great void.

I first learned the word “quotidian” from Spanish — cotidiano — and fell in love with the sound of it. I didn’t even know there was an English equivalent until much later. But that’s the beauty of language: along our literary travels, we often encounter new words to treasure as part of our collections like seashells at the beach.

If you liked this post, treat me to a cup of coffee on Ko-fi.

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Diane Callahan

Written by

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Diane Callahan

Written by

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

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