Go early, stay late and 9 other tips to expand your writing vocabulary
Over the next few months, Poynter will publish shortened versions of 21 chapters of the book “Help! for Writers,” by Roy Peter Clark. Published by Little, Brown, the book lists common problems writers face and offers 10 solutions for each of the problems.
Problem 10: How to expand your limited vocabulary
- If you can’t find the words, let the words find you.
During the gathering stage of writing, you’ll include a hunt for language. A good vocabulary comes from many sources, but especially from habitual reading – deep and wide – on topics both big and small. In the short run, a richer vocabulary often comes from reporting. You will report for facts, data, scenes, details, but also for language. Never be afraid to ask: “What do you call that thing?”
- Create a lexicon for each of the topics you write about.
A lexicographer is someone who creates lists of words, as in a dictionary. At one time or another, all writers become amateur work trackers. The reason is simple. Writers like to write about people, especially groups of people: lumberjacks, pole dancers, astrophysicists, plumbers, kindergarten teachers. The members of those groups communicate with one another in specialized language that bond them into a community and create guarded gates of language to keep others out. Learn those words.
- Keep in mind the “discourse community” or language club you are writing for.
The language or diction you use in a story depends on your sense of audience. Each of us owns a spice rack full of language styles to satisfy the appetites of different language communities we serve as writers. The members of my Catholic parish, St. Paul’s, form one discourse community; the newsroom of the Tampa Bay Times another; the morning crowd at Banyan restaurant another. Different wards, different words, a habit that linguists describe as “code switching.”
- Ask your sources for the names of things.
What do you call the first three community cards in Texas Hold’em poker?
That’s called the “flop,” the next card is the “turn,” the last card is the “river.”
What do you call that piano technique when you finish one chord progression and start a new one?
I think you mean a “turnaround.”
What do you call that little punching bag in the back of the throat?
That’s called the “uvula,” from the Latin word for “swollen grape.”
- To give yourself time to notice and collect, go early and stay late.
Showing up at an event early and staying late lets you scout out the most revealing knickknacks and artifacts, story details that will yield, along with the power of particularity, some interesting language. If I were writing about my former colleague Ellyn, I could visit her workspace and find: a lava lamp, a stuffed purple porpoise, Pink Mardi Gras beads, the game Kerplunk!, a Kansas University plaque with its sports cheer: Rock Chalk Jayhawk, a tiny waving hula dancer with the word “Aloha” on the base. Look at the treasure trove of language unlocked by two minutes of close observation.
- Keep track of key words in your reading.
A former English major, I harbor an apprehension about the worlds of science and math, which is why I compensate for my insecurities with my reading. I always have a book nearby that unlocks for me the ways in which scientists understand the world. As I read, I learn a lot of new words, and some old words used in new ways. An article on embryonic stem cell research leads me to a fabulous new word for me: “blastocyst.”
- Explode old words for new meaning.
Finding the history of one word will also remind you of words that are connected to the same root, such as famine/famish, or venereal/venerate/venerable/Venus. When you find a key word — even if you know its literal meaning — look it up and learn. Watch the word explode. Pick up the pieces of meaning.
- Learn the relationship between your reading and writing vocabularies.
Chances are, most of your readers have reading vocabularies bigger than your writing vocabulary. You may be censoring yourself in an effort to achieve maximum comprehensibility. Though you may be tempted to write eleemosynary, you’ll fall back on charitable. When a journalist uses an uncommon word, she usually defines it or creates a context in which the meaning is clear. But our heads are filled with hundreds of wonderful words that rarely make it into news stories: gelatin, geisha, Geiger counter, gecko, gee whiz. We need to bust such words out of prison.
- Get the name of the dog.
This is my favorite writing tool. To enliven your prose, it helps to compile a list of proper names that are relevant to your story. In St. Pete, our shorthand command for this type of detail is “the name of the dog.” But it can also be the name of the bread (Wonder). Or the name of the car (Mustang). Or the brand of the cigarette (Camel) or beer (Shock Top).
- Don’t just describe that “thingy,” name it.
If you have been to the eye doctor, you have experienced a machine that helps the doctor fine-tune your prescription for glasses. It’s that big thingy that the doctor slides onto your face to test different lenses. “Which is clearer?” he asks. “A or B?” For a story, I needed to know the name of that thingy. So I called Dr. Updegraff’s office. Turns out it’s a phoropter. A quick Google search verified that word, and offered a photo.