Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fatten Your Active Vocabulary

I often got criticized for trying to use new words in my stories. "This seems too forced," someone might say. Or, the words I have come to dread: "Too writerly." I wanted to make my language richer, but going to the thesaurus didn't seem to be the answer.

That's when I started paying attention to writers like John Updike, who used vocabulary that I was already familiar with, but in combinations or places that were unexpected. I came up with much more creative lines in my own work, like this example to describe part of a scene where a character was rummaging around his apartment after accidentally cutting off two of his fingers: "He left bird prints on the walls."

I think the key to improving your language in writing is to be able to recall more of the words you already know--your active vocabulary. I try to do this throughout the day, challenging myself to come with quirky or interesting ways to speak with other people. You'll be surprised at how fun this is! I'd say about once a week I get someone to smile simply by using an adjective that was a little unusual. It loosens me up so that when I get to my writing, I'm able to come up with a larger variety of words without having to look anything up.

How do you improve your writing language? Do you have any great lines that show off your language?


  1. Great post, Davin! I've been trying to do this since the moment I started writing again. I'm not sure how well I'm pulling it off! I must confess that I use a thesaurus, but I definitely don't pull out the big, unfamiliar words to use. Usually I'll be looking for something like the word 'snug' instead of 'tight' or 'fragile' instead of 'delicate.' Sometimes another seemingly mundane word fits better than another because of rhythm or alliteration, etc., or it allows you, like you say, to use the word in an unexpected way.

    I liked this line I put in my recent short story on Simon's contest: He glanced at her tattoo again, the black and purple design, the red-flicking tongue.

    And, I like the title of your post. That's a great example of what you're saying. :)

  2. Some days I feel like I'm writing for children, others I feel as if I could win the Nobel Prize for literature. I try to use 'big' words where they might be appreciated in a story, but of course, depending on the story, a regular old word will do just as well.

    I've spent time living in other areas of the country and one of my favorite sayings was "Well, don't you look like a speckled pup in a red wagon, sitting on the green grass" and all it meant was "You look nice." Go figure.

  3. Love the bird print eg.

    I completely get what you're saying about using words that are common but in slightly different ways. I mark places in the books I read when I see them. One from last night I like was a description of a middle-aged man who, while still retains his early handsomeness, but the narrator can see in a few years, he will "coarsen into piggishness."

    I do, however, still like the surprise of an unusual, or writerly, word sparingly used.

  4. I tend to stray away from the big, fancy words that might make a reader go "huh??". I mean, it's one thing to have a Kindle and have the option of looking up the word immediately without having to get up, find the dictionary, and flip through the massive tome.

    I guess I tend to do what Lady Glamis does in finding simpler words - short in nature if possiblity - that are more easily understood. I think the key to all of this is, as both you and Lady Glamis pointed out, to use the words in 'unexpected ways'.


  5. I don't know if I do it well, but simply-put and usual metaphors work. Some authors who excel at it are ...

    Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men: "The spotlight kept rowing back and forth across the face of the ridge. Methodically. Bright shuttle, dark loom."

    Leif Enger, Peace Like a River: "Yes, yes sir -- routine is worry's sly assassin."

    Ursula K. Le Guin, "Gwilan's Harp," The Compass Rose: "Her wrist that had been broken grew a little stiff as the years went on; then the arthritis came into her hands. The work she did in house and farm was not easy work. But then who, looking at a hand, would say it was made to do easy work? You can see from the look of it that it is meant to do difficult things, that it is the noble, willing servant of the heart and mind. But the best servants get clumsy as the years go on."

  6. Michelle, thanks for the line example. It's a nice one! And, I do believe a thesaurus can be helpful is used smartly. I just don't think I've ever been able to do that. ;P

    Anne, I love that saying! I think you bring up a good point about placement. I've sort of been thinking of it in a different way than you though. Lately, I've suspected that if you use big words all over the place, it starts to sound like your usual voice. So, I do think there's something about the display of the words that's important.

    Yat-Yee, well, your grab-a-line Mondays at your blog have been great for showcasing stuff like this. And thanks for that great example! When I read it, someone immediately came to mind from my own circle of friends. That's always a sign of a good description for me.

    Scott, It will be interesting to see how tools on things like the Kindle allow more flexibility. I hadn't thought of that. I do strive for the unexpected!

    Loren, thanks for the fine examples, even if they weren't your own. You mentioned a couple of the writers I admire most.

  7. Yes, Davin, I can see you getting tempted by all the big fancy words. :)

  8. I tend to use my writerly words in non-fiction, more than I do in fiction. In my fiction I like to focus, as you say, on new ways of describing things, fresh perspectives. If I say prolix instead of wordy, it'll be in, um... blog comments and stuff. My fiction prose is more limpid....

  9. If they flow, I use them, but I don't try to force them.

    I'm in the final pages of Michael Chabon's THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF CAVALIER AND CLAY, and he has a very eloquent way of infusing his writing with precious nuggets from a word-of-the-day calendar. Here are a couple examples:

    During 1941, in the wake of that outburst of gaudy hopefulness, the World's Fair, a sizable portion of the citizens of New York City had the odd experience of feeling for the time in which they were living, in the very moment they were living in it, that strange blend of optimism and nostalgia which is the usual hallmark of the aetataureate delusion.


    Jostled, excusing himself, offering his apologies as he stumbled against them, half overwhelmed by the acrid miasma of cigar smoke and the violent coughing they brought with them from the other shore, Joe nearly gave up and turned back.

    I think these two sentences are well composed and they flow naturally with the voice of the novel. Neither would find comfort in any of my W's in P, but I still learn something from the example.

  10. Davin - I'm just glad you're still talking to me after I sent you that lovely, highly masculine award the other day. Mr. Bailey, however, might not be aware that he was awarded the same award and is now among an exceptional class of bloggers who wear their masculinity proudly . . . no matter the name of the award.

    On a more serious note, I think the advance of technology and the ease to find the definition of words should allow writers greater freedom to use big, long-@$s words that nobody, not even Mr. Dickens or Mr. Tolstoy know how to prounounce.


  11. I think Mighty Reader and I might own a thesaurus, but I couldn't tell you where it is. I get most of my new vocabulary either from reading non-fiction research or from stumbling across words in fiction I'm reading. I don't go out of my way to mess with my vocabulary. Oddly enough, I was just thinking about this very subject this morning. Recently it's come to my attention that what I'm trying to do with language is to use words in surprising but accurate ways, to find new ways of expressing myself within whatever my working vocabulary is. Surely I love a new word, and sometimes I'll sit staring off into space for half an hour until it comes to me that "bespeak" is what I'm looking for to complete my sentence-in-progress ("Others are aware that Father Dowd’s shortcomings bespeak only the low regard had for the colonies by England."), but I figure that unless there is a specific technical term I need in a passage (like "hawser," for example), the words I want to use are the words I already know.

    Some favorite sentences from my WIP that use, according to, some of the longer words in the MS:

    The priest draws back on his reins, stopping in the road, bewildered by the sudden manifestation of these two men.

    Take my coins, leave my accouterments and go on your way.

    I may be here to do God’s work, but I would be mendacious not to own that I have many a flaw.

  12. Simon, that's interesting that your language in non-fiction and fiction are different in that way. What's that about? I've been writing more non-fiction lately and I'm seeing how different my non-fiction voice is compared to my fiction voice. C'est bizarre.

    Rick, thanks for the examples! I tried that book and enjoyed the first half, but never got around to finishing it. I like what you say about these sentences not fitting into your own work. It's fun to recognized and celebrate the differences in our voices.

    Scott M. that award was a delight!

    Scott G. F. B., thanks for the excellent examples! I think you already have a pretty large vocabulary, so all of this probaby comes easier to you than it does to me. I had one of those experiences of sitting and thinking of a perfect word for a long time. It was "glottal," which I still like.

  13. Since I write YA I'm working at broadening my simple vocabulary. I love words like "rankle" or "indefatigable," but those tend to not sound like the narrator's voice in YA, so I've been working to recall all the "simple" ways to say things I already know. I pull up the thesaurus often for that and end up picking words like "waves."

  14. I'm easily tempted by cheap puns. I especially like them if the word used and the word-it-sounds-like-was-supposed-to-be-used both work in the sentence.

    In my WIP:

    "Even the noblest of family trees grows a strange fruit here or there, and King Eduard's had a particularly fermented one."

    A description of a possibly-insane old woman follows.

  15. Genie: insane old lady as fermented fruit! Made me laugh. I just hope my kids never use that on me!

  16. This is a tough subject because “big words” are different sizes for everyone. The same things can be said for “too simple”.

  17. It is fun, trying to come up with something new, different wording than we read all the time. I'm getting better at it, but am sure I have a long way to go.
    Practice makes perfect, and my blog is one of the places I practice:)

  18. Also, I totally agree with what Southpaw said!

  19. Great post. I like to do this a lot to, it is fun. BTW - ordered the anthology yesterday. Can't wait to see it!

  20. Lois, That's a great example of where a wider active vocabulary could be really useful. Thanks for bringing it up!

    Genie, Thanks for the fantastic example! It's lovely, and I'm getting to be a fan of your work!

    Southpaw, I think the key is to be more in touch with the vocabulary you would use normally. I think what can sometimes happen is that we get used to using a very narrow daily vocabulary and working to vary that a bit can really energize your writing.

    coffeelvnmom, I think as long as we work at it we're bound to get better!

    Jennifer, I agree this can be a lot of fun! And, thanks for buying a copy of Genre Wars! :)

  21. Great post Davin. Something I can relate to!
    This is usually what I do, actually. I try to make the words I know look as good as possible in a creative sentence, and when it just doesn't meet the flow, I try the thesaurus. I do this with poems, too.
    Then again, I like big words when I read historical fiction. Makes it more... "legit". Like the author's been there, you know?


  22. Brigitte, I like what you said about making the words you know look as good as possible! :)

  23. Ah yes. I struggle constantly with my work being 'too writerly' if such even exists!

    Many descriptions have been over-used and as a result, are now cliched. So i try to steer clear of them. I find myself staring at one line, one word and thinking of more inventive ways to describe it. Sometimes just a simple change can make all the difference to its effectiveness. That said, if a word is 'too writerly' it can appear false.

    I guess it's just about finding the balance. Great post. I'm enjoying your blog greatly. :)

  24. you look like a speckled pup in a red wagon, sitting on the green grass" and all it meant was "You look nice." Go figure.

    Work from home India

  25. When I was younger, searching out unusual words in the thesaurus was a favorite pastime (I know, major word geek here!), and of course I wanted to use my newfound treasures whenever possible. Years later, a dear friend and mentor pointed out to me that in doing so, I wasn't communicating effectively because my audience might not have the same vocabulary.

    Of course, my first reaction was that they should increase their active vocabulary rather than my having to "dumb down" mine. Over time, I came to appreciate the advice. I'd rather find creative ways to use "simple" words than see my intended audience's eyes glaze over because I'm using words they haven't made part of their vocab.

    One of my favorite things to do now is put a new spin on a cliche, like saying "blind as a baseball bat" rather than "blind as a bat." Bats aren't blind, after all...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.