Monday, May 16, 2005

building up vocabulary

Words, of course, are the coin of a writer and it makes sense to have as many of them as makes sense to you - then it becomes a matter of craft, style or technique just which ones you use. It should be apparent, however, that the more words you know, the more options you have when you want to set down your thoughts in writing.

Why is this important?

In everyday speech, we use only a small percentage of all the words we know. This subset of our vocabulary is a tiny core of useful words. These serve our purposes well, in terms of commonplace experience.

Writing, however, requires more than just the commonplace, which forms the foundation of what you have to say. I am not saying "Go for the exotic words and impress the louts in the crowd!” I'm saying that knowing synonyms, antonyms, and other means of expression are advantageous: it should be a given, as a writer, that you love words and language. It helps not just in writing, but in public speaking, competitions and, of course, for reading comprehension.

So how do you improve your vocabulary? Caveat time: This worked for me, it may not be your cup of tea - but you'll never know until you try.

1. Read. A lot. Read everything: newspapers, magazines, brochures, flyers, menus, ad copy, website copy, in addition to fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays, plays, children's books, juvenilia, comic books, cookbooks, travelogues, critiques, other people's blogs, everything. Do not stick with only with what you like. If you do, your vocabulary will be slow in growing because all the words in favorite reading material are most likely known to you already. Expose yourself to other forms of writing (the jargon alone in specialist publications will get you going). Keep note of unfamiliar words and check a dictionary when you get home (or go to an online one if you're connected - you can even ask Google to "define:mysteryword" for you).

2. Listen. Your life probably follows a routine like mine does. But it is important for you to break out of it once in a while. Attend a symposium. Watch a play. Go a poetry reading. Sit in or audit a class. Visit an NGO and ask for their literature then ask them hard questions. Hang out with younger people. Hang out with older people. By doing this, you will hear people using different words. Keep note and learn.

3. Play games. Nikki and I, like our close circle of friends, are inveterate game addicts. Board games, card games, RPG, PC, PS1/2, arcade, you name it and we’ll probably play it (except for racing games which I suck at). When we compete against each other, there is no husband or wife tenderness - there is only the question "Who is the best Alfar?" (and sometimes, it's not even us). When it comes to word games, we drop our gloves and go for the jugular: Upwords, Word Factory/boggle, Scrabble, TextTwist -even the crosswords and word finds are fiercely contested. Advantage goes to people who know strange short words like "xu" or "aa". Keep note of what other people play and absorb.

4. Taste a word a day. Subscribe to a word-a-day type program. I'm on the Merriam-Webster Online list and get a word emailed to me daily. The wonderful thing about this site is that you can listen to proper pronunciation. There are many resources online, look for them and use them.

5. Use the words. Inject a new one in something you're writing. Try one in conversation. Use a few during client or school presentations. Get your tongue used to the syllables. Speak them, say them, get used to them. Spell them, dissect them, write them down, familiarize yourself.

Later, when you sit down for a writing session, be it a nice long one or guerilla-style, you'll have more weapons at your disposal to use against the blank page or monitor - then you can decide to be elegant and sparse or as verbose as you wish.

It's always better to have different ways to say what you want to say.


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