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A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
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Expanding Your Vocabulary

One of my clients commented that he feels his work is dry and lifeless when he compares his efforts with other writers on the same subject. He says that he feels his vocabulary is limited. I donít think thatís the case, but he does, so hereís a blog for him.

 

Specifically, when we first began our association, this client wrote unnecessarily long and complex sentences. Now, heís writing meaty and informative sentences, and his work is gaining visibility with his clients and their readers as a result. To me, that seems like a big and wonderful change. But heís the type whoís always trying to improve. More power to him.

 

At first, I suggested that he try writing poetry. His reaction was of enormous distaste. I suggested some funny and easily accessible poets as models, like Ogden Nash and Doctor Seuss, and sent him a few examples. His response was that the poems were pointless. (My brother says that cucumbers are pointless. Both comments strike me as funny, but I donít agree with either of them.)

 

This client writes technical articles but he wants to write science fiction as well; itís not that he thinks everything has to be useful. He is cheerfully reading a book on writing fiction; itís not that he thinks only science fiction and technical documents are readable.

 

I began to think about how to help him make his work more colorful, knowing that he wouldnít imitate some of my favorite authors (who are poets). I started to think about what give me the confidence to think that my own writing is colorful, and I came to the conclusion that it isnít the words I use, itís the words I know.

 

I have several friends who, like me, happily read the dictionary. Yes, we all have huge vocabularies and are murderous opponents at Scrabble. Yes, many of us do crossword puzzles in ink. We are people who like the way a word sounds, who enjoy the etymology of words, and who are thrilled when someone uses a word we donít know.

 

Itís also true that we donít use the vast majority of these interesting words in our writing. It seems like just having this compendium of knowledge allows our writing to be evocative, flowing without being flowery, and convinces readers that we are not being patronizing when we explain a difficult subject.

 

Hereís the exercise I came up with. Why donít you try it too, and let me know how it goes.

 

Make a list of all the words you know that describe a group. Be sure to associate suitable nouns with them, like a bevy of bees, a bunch of grapes, and so forth.

 

Let this assignment percolate over several days. You will hear additional words and think of others as you get deeper into it. (You may want to alphabetize your list, so you donít repeat yourself.) See if you can uncover an array of topical items, like the names of groups associated with specific animals, sciences, sports, or industries.

 

When youíve reached a point where you canít think of any more groups, send the list to me. Donít post them in comments please, or youíll take the fun from future readers.

 

Then go to your Synonym Finder or Thesaurus and look up ďgroup.Ē Then look up every word that you find listed under ďgroupĒ and follow all of the tangents that arenít already in your list.

 

I am also interested in seeing your expanded list, but mostly, I want you to notice how many different ways there are to say ďgroupĒ that you already know. My guess is that you can come up with 20 or more words in the first sitting, and that you have 40 or so before you send them to me. (If your list is shorter, it only means that youíll have more fun with the synonym finder, or that you are not used to thinking like this.) Youíll probably know the vast majority of the ones you look up, too.

 

At the conclusion of this exercise, you should have a pretty good sense of whether you have a nice vocabulary that you just donít use, or whether you really need to do some work with a ďword-a-dayĒ calendar or a synonym finder.

 

And, Iíll wager that youíll never use the word ďgroupĒ again without wondering if there isnít a better choice. J

 

Bonus points for obscure words and names of animal groups. Double bonus points for the name of a group of turtles. (That one took me nearly a month to find.)