Because a Sterling Vocabulary Is a Writer’s Best Friend

Vocabulary

Because a Sterling Vocabulary Is a Writer’s Best Friend

Like anyone who’s ever read and enjoyed a classic work of literature such as Wuthering Heights or Great Expectations, finally succumbing to the frenzied peer pressure and reading Twilight a few years ago was an unsettling experience. I say “unsettling” because while Stephanie Meyer’s writing—in particular her vocabulary—almost enraged me at times, her storyline had the 16-year-old girl inside of me totally and ridiculously hooked. (Confession: Later, I was able to put my finger on the other element I found very disturbing about the book when I saw the video presentation of this incredible thesis—turned journal article—on the harmful messages of the Twilight phenomenon by doctoral student KJ Swanson.)

While we could sit here all day and find the weaknesses in Meyer’s writing—although, who’s the filthy rich author getting the last laugh here?—I want to talk about the thing that drove me (and most other readers I know) batty about the narrative: It was the constant and consistent references to Edward’s beauty. Beautiful this, beautiful that—the word beautiful was so overly peppered throughout the text, specifically in regard to Edward, that it became almost laughable. (Think I’m overstating it? Thankfully TJ Dawe has done the hard work and already proven my point for me.)

I daresay most of us are not going to make such a brutally obvious mistake in our writing, and that most of us are also not going to brilliantly tap into that mysterious thing called “what millions of people really want to read” and make an absolute fortune doing so. However, most of us still have room for improvement when it comes to our vocabularies.

As a younger writer at a national magazine, I was held to one very specific standard by the managing editor: Don’t use very or really or great or good unless there is no other word that will work.* And while sometimes I hated needing to dig out a thesaurus or take the extra few minutes to rethink what I actually meant with those “catch-all” words, the practice helped ingrain in me a good necessary (see what I did there?) writing habit.

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The more precise we are with our words, the more we are actually communicating.

Of course, in the case of Twilight, it isn’t just in the level of communication—as in, the reader misses out on a fuller picture of who Edward is because of Meyer’s limited vocabulary—it’s also the redundancy factor. And this redundancy can creep up on even the best authors. As an editor of many books, I’ve found that one of the most important parts of editing a work of fiction** is to not only read it multiple times (in the average edit, my goal is to read through at least three times), but to be certain it is read at least one of those times in just one or two sittings. (And, yes, this means spending entire days of the project just reading.) Because it’s in those single-sitting marathon readings that we can catch the author’s vocabulary weaknesses in ways we will miss completely by reading in smaller chunks of time or reading more slowly, and it is remarkable how many bestselling authors seem to have had their books robbed of this vital editing practice. (You discover these oversights when you spend a snow day devouring a popular novel in one leisurely sitting.)

For example, when you read through all at once you are far more likely to catch the author’s repeated use of noticeably unique adverbs or descriptive phrases. You’ll catch that the leather was supple twice or a heroine’s hair was unruly on three occasions. Generally speaking, no great talented writer should be making these repetitions obviously in one book unless it’s on purpose for poetic rhythm or to establish a character’s speech patterns or within some other creative, intentional mechanism.

And if you’re an aspiring author sans professional editor, it can be hard to catch yourself making this mistake in anything longer than a few thousand words. You probably need another set of eyes to hear the troublesome echoes in your own voice when we’re talking about tens of thousands of words, so you might need the help of a friend. However, the best prevention is building a vocabulary that automatically finds the fresh, precise and more interesting word when you are actually writing. So, you can get yourself a gimmicky word-of-the-day calendar (or read through the dictionary) or you can do the easiest possible thing: READ MORE BOOKS.

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And not just any books—scratch Twilight off that list right now—but books written by authors whose vocabularies are rich. Not so rich that you’re needing to pull out a dictionary with every page, but rich enough that you are challenged. When you see words you like or have never read or don’t even understand, you should underline them in the text, and you should also write them into a journal. (When you choose to look up definitions is up to you, as long as you have a searchable record of the awesome words for later and they aren’t buried in your books.) If you are as hooked on your e-reader as I am, it gets a little easier. You simply highlight the word to instantly see the definition and then leave it highlighted so when you finish you can reference your new list of grownup vocabulary words with the click of a single button.

Some of my favorite authors for this vocabulary enrichment happen to be from the UK. Is it that they simply have words we don’t use here in the US? Possibly. But I often find the words they introduce me to are incredibly helpful and memorable and smart. In other words, let’s toss the idea that a word isn’t “American” and just embrace it when it’s a more accurate and specific word.

Will your reader not know some of the delightful words you will cull from hours of your own blissful reading? Quite possibly, yes. But don’t be afraid of setting a cookie on the top shelf now and then. You will be offering your readers the same gift another author offered you: a broadened vocabulary and a richer grasp of your own beautiful (thanks, Stephanie Meyer) language.

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Some of my favorite authors for vocabulary enrichment are Kate Atkinson and Tana French. Their mystery novels are deep and compelling (read: fun) and their word choices are divine. What about you? Which authors have you underlining words and reaching for your dictionary?

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*Note: Of course there will be times when using the simplicity of words like very, really, great and good is preferred. (As in the title of Dickens’ arguably greatest work.) But I still believe asking the question of whether or not another word is better is a wonderful way to push your writing to the next level.

**Also Note:I’m picking on fiction authors, because in non-fiction the author’s vocabulary shortcomings are often not as detrimental. In fact, in non-fiction it can sometimes be that same redundancy and repetition of noticeable words and phrases that drives concepts and ideas home.

Author Bio: Michael is the founder of ApartmentImprovement. He and his associates are passionate about writing smart home improvement devices such as security systems, door hardware, and locks, thermostats etc. They have also provided different types of power and hand tools just like Miter saw, Table saw drill, etc. He is also a father of two kids where he has balanced between his passion and his majestic joy in life.

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Meet Tamara Rice

    Tam is a lover of words and Jesus and family, though perhaps not in that order. She’s an editor, writer, a breast cancer survivor, and an advocate for mental health and for victims of sexual abuse.