vocab matters, too


When I was in grade school. vocab tests were among my least favorite scholastic exercises. For starters, I can’t spell for shit. Yeah, I’m a writer and, yes, I work with words all the time, but I have to pause and think about what I’m typing every single time I use ‘dilemma’, for example. The same goes for ‘February’ and ‘Wednesday’, which I still have to sound out in my mind when writing. Because a big part of vocabulary tests was knowing how to spell each word, I had to actually study for them a good bit.

But that’s not the only reason I didn’t enjoy those tests. I didn’t understand their value, which made the entire enterprise seem like a mild form of torture rather than a necessary step in my education. “Why,” I asked myself, “do I need to know what ‘non-sequitur’ means?! When am I ever going to use that in a real sentence?”

As it turns out, ‘non-sequitur’ is one of my favorite words and I use it more often than you would think. I love how it sounds spoken, and the visual of it written on the page is so unique. Its meaning, “an inference or a conclusion that does not follow from the premises”, is deliciously malleable. Plus, as an added bonus, most people look at me cross-eyed when I say it and ask me to stick to English. That makes me feel smart. I like feeling smart.

Askance‘ has a similar effect. I learned both words when trudging through vocab tests back in middle school. The skills of a misspent youth, right?

A rich vocabulary is a valuable commodity for anyone, in part because it’s one of those things you simply can’t fake. You either know lots of words or you don’t. If you don’t, your own speech will betray you. If you do, and if you know them well enough that you pepper every conversation with a wide variety of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, others will pick up on it. Even if they don’t do so consciously, they will notice. You’ll stand out.

For the writer, a voluminous vocabulary is essential. Fiction gets boring if you stick to a handful of descriptors. You need to know your words. The goal is not to confuse readers with the most random phrases you can dream up, but to keep readers engaged and excited by spicing up your language just the right amount. That ain’t gonna happen if everything you describe is simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Some things really need to be ‘sacrosanct’, and some things ‘nefarious’.

If you recognize that your vocab could use some work, I have two suggestions. The first is one I’ve harped on before: read. Read a lot. Read things that are challenging and stimulating. If your favorite books are all YA supernatural love stories, for example, venture out of that genre from time to time just to feed your own intellect. (Not that YA supernatural love stories can’t feed the intellect. Variety is what you want.) If/when you come across a word you don’t know, look it up. You might be able to infer the meaning from context, but go beyond that. Turn to dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster Online or even grab a good, old-fashioned hardcover dictionary and find the new word. Drink in its various meanings. Absorb it. Learn it well enough that you’re comfortable using it.

The second tool I’m going to suggest is a cheat if you refuse to use the first. It’s the lazy writer’s vocab enhancer: a thesaurus. (My go-to is thesaurus.com.) Don’t, I repeat, do not make the mistake of thinking a thesaurus alone will be your vocab cure-all. It won’t. You’ll end up with sentences and phrases that sound forced and disjointed. Instead, use a thesaurus sparingly. It can be a useful tool, but it’s only a minor boost to the transforming power of learning new words through reading.

Think of your writing as a craft and your vocabulary as the specialty tools. Learn as much as you can and use a wide variety. It will make a noticeable difference in your fiction.


About Ash Martin
Ash Martin writes dark fantasy and horror, has a thing for classic monster legends, Nordic mythology, coffee, and sarcasm, and is currently working on multiple books.

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