Let’s discuss vocabulary!
As writers, words are our lifeblood, our essence, and the core of our craft. When we consider the various ways to form a sentence, paragraph, or poem, words dart through our minds in a tangled web of composition and possibility. On the other side of the spectrum, however, are the readers – the group of people who determine the quality of our work – and fortunately, most of us jump back and forth between those roles. How often, then, have you come across a piece of writing which started out beautifully written but quickly lost momentum when a single word was misused? Or maybe you came across a word you’ve never seen before, and you had to halt your reading until you found its definition.
If that’s what you did, then you already have my respect, because if writing is a path you want to fully pursue (possibly even make a living from), then you need to understand that having a broad vocabulary isn’t nearly as crucial as acquiring mastery over a basic one. To expand your vocabulary is, in the most basic sense, to study language itself. Let’s explore that idea.
Words = Language = Words
I can always tell when another writer has used a thesaurus. For example, a simple statement like, “I love my puppy with all my heart,” becomes nonsense which reads, “I amour my cur with all my nucleus.” Many young writers (myself included once upon a time) employ synonyms (words with similar meanings) found in a thesaurus in an attempt to sound more intelligent which, they hope, will provide their writing with an air of elegance. This is not always achieved. Please don’t misunderstand: using a thesaurus is a good and healthy practice but only when you also understand the function of the word.
Many words in English – arguably one of the more complicated languages – can act as multiple parts of speech. Love, for example, can be a noun and a verb, and within those uses, love still has various meanings. In the statement above, then, love is being used as a verb, so to substitute the word, amour, would be incorrect, because amour (aside from being a French word) is a noun. If that same writer were to substitute adore instead, then the statement, “I adore my puppy…” would make perfect sense!
As a growing writer, don’t waste your time trying to incorporate large, eloquent-sounding vocabulary into your work. Even if you know exactly how the word is meant to be used, the chance that your audience will also understand it is pretty low. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t throw a fancy word out there every now and again, but mastery of common language is far more valuable and far-reaching. And be patient. Even as a writer who has spoken English from his first word, I am still learning new words and uses for old ones, as well. That’s the beauty of language: it grows and evolves with us!
Once You’re Ready…
When you’ve finally reached the point where you understand the basics of a language, and you feel comfortable writing within that set of rules, that’s the time when you should begin to branch out. Again, though, take your time. Let the words come to you! As your written works collect, you will inevitably become bored with some of your vocabulary. Especially where poetry is concerned, words revolving around concepts like “love” become repetitive and downright annoying. Heart, lust, desire, passion, blah blah blah! If you reach that point, by all means, branch out! Find a word which appeals to you – one at a time, though – and write with it until you feel comfortable with all its uses. Then branch out again.
In time, you’ll find that your understanding of the language, both written and spoken, has improved dramatically. Words will flow more naturally, you will have an easier time communicating your thoughts and emotions (the goal of every writer), and instead of receiving feedback steeped in confusion, your audience will, at last, be on the same page with you. So one more time, allow me to say it: to expand your vocabulary is to study language. Respect this concept, and your writing (and vocabulary) will improve in kind.
Samuel Blake ǀ @herheart_oncraft
Her Heart Poetry’s ON CRAFT area will be evolving over the coming months. Samuel’s goal is to both educate and inspire readers and writers of all calibres. ON CRAFT articles will be published to teach about a different facet of creative writing.