Using Your Words: Growth and Maintenance of the Writer’s Vocabulary

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

— Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

I see a disturbing trend rising in the new world of publishing. I see lots of writers who could use a vocabulary boost. This manifests itself in a couple of ways: either writers stick with the same safe, familiar words over and over again, or they use words without full knowledge of what they mean. Paging Inigo Montoya.

The good news is that both symptoms are curable with just a bit of effort. The easiest way to build vocabulary is to read; we’ve all heard that advice before. I’ve also heard people complain that they don’t have time to read. A lot of those people eventually ask me about that week’s episode of a television show. Yeah. I caught you. If you had time to watch that, you had time to read.

Don’t read just anything, though. If the idea here is to build vocabulary by exposing ourselves to new words, then we have to go where the new words are. Right? Try a new author. Dip into a new subject. Explore unfamiliar genres. Go expand your horizons.

The audiobook, beautiful as it is, probably won’t get you any closer to meeting your vocabulary goal. For one thing, the audiobook won’t spell that new word for you. This is one of my favorite things – I love sounding out those words that are so horribly misspelled that I can’t identify them otherwise – but remember, I charge by the hour.

Keep a dictionary around while you’re reading. I don’t recommend rushing right to it, though. Many moons ago, when I studied Latin, I read with my dictionary just out of reach. When I ran across an unfamiliar word, I found that I’d rather use context to make an educated guess as to what it meant. (That way, I didn’t have to sit up and reach for my dictionary.) Later, when I was finalizing my translations, I’d double-check my reading with a dictionary. That’s how I’m using my English dictionary now. Stopping for each unfamiliar word breaks up my reading experience too much. If I can use context as a stopgap measure, I do that until I can take a dictionary break, but I do take a dictionary break if I have to.

I know it sounds like school. I even invoked school a minute ago. But this whole glamorous writer’s life is work. If it feels joyful, it’s because the work is about as cool as it gets, but it is work.

You can still have fun, though. Go check out It’s a vocabulary game. Each time you get an answer right, you donate rice to people in need. Level 1 is no great challenge … but there are 60 levels.

Go forth and enjoy! Maybe soon, you’ll invoke Inigo Montoya. That’s going to feel pretty good.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.


5 thoughts on “Using Your Words: Growth and Maintenance of the Writer’s Vocabulary

  • Terrific advice, as always, Lexi. I love discovering new words, too. (And did I hear a bwahahahahaha in that one section???) 🙂

    • I couldn’t help myself. 🙂 In one of my day jobs, we used to gather the best examples of “sound it out” writing and share them over lunch. For the record, “cooberate” was my personal favorite.

      Finding new words is so rewarding, isn’t it? “Ubicate,” which I swore up and down was not a word, is my most recent discovery!

  • Hi Lexi! Thanks for calling out those folks who have time to watch such informative things as “reality” (really?) shows but don’t have time to read books. (And any writer who makes that statement should be hauled out and stabbed with their suffering editor’s bloody pen, repeatedly) I also hate the one where they claim, with a sniff, that they don’t read fiction (again, “reality” shows?). However, I am glad I’m not the only one who chooses to decipher a new word through context. Those dictionaries are hefty tomes to just toss in the pocketbook alongside whatever book I’m reading right now. Bottom line–writers READ and reading Will increase your vocabulary Guaranteed!

    • Yeah, I love the I’m-too-good-for-fiction crowd, too. Cutting oneself off from most of literature isn’t anything I would brag about, but whatever.

      I think working things out through context is good for the old gray matter! It must be good for the brain function somehow.

  • I sometimes think there is a massive conspiracy going on in corporate America, to dumb down the population until we are nothing but consumers. Of course, having worked in corporations before,, and seeing how they can’t get along with each other internally, much less externally, I know my theory is impossible, but still, I wonder.

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