Every writer worries about their vocabulary.
Words, after all, are the building blocks of our craft, so it makes sense to obsess over expanding our vocab — to ensure the perfect word is always within reach.
But hey. Relax.
A large vocabulary may be helpful, but it’s not a prerequisite for good writing. Many writers (especially those cut from the minimalist cloth) have crafted wonderful stories with simple language; and the reason they’re able to do so is because even simple words hold power.
“Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able,” says E.B. White. And Stephen King, when discussing vocabulary in On Writing, goes so far as to say that apart from reading, “don’t make any conscious effort to improve it.”
Simple works, and it works well. So don’t stress too much about expanding your vocab beyond what you naturally develop while reading. You can if you want to, but again, you don’t have to.
That being said, if you are going to seek out new words, there’s one kind in particular that I’ve found to be most helpful.
The names of things.
Really, there’s no need to hunt down adverbs and adjectives, or various synonyms for words you already know. Instead, learning what the heck everyday things are called is a great, simple way to write with more power and precision.
For example, want a character to elegantly remove the wires on the cork of a champagne bottle? It helps to know that’s called a wire hood. (Thanks Ann Lamott.)
Want to describe the color of trim running along the seam of a dress or a soldier’s formal uniform? It’s called piping.
Or want a character in the passenger seat of a car to hide by crouching down to the floor? The area they’re crouching into is called the footwell.
These particular examples may or may not be new to you, but they’re the kind of words that are worth collecting because they enable you to write more specific sentences. You can learn them in various ways, but the most productive for me have been reading (which is how I learned the above examples) and asking friends and family about the subjects/objects they’re knowledgeable about.
Google, of course, is also a constant companion when you need the name of something for a particular description. For example, I often image-search the phrase “[object] diagram” to learn what parts of things are called. One past search of mine was “chimney diagram,” which helped me finally understand the flue and damper enough to have a character interact with them.
Now, as fun as these words are, just because you learn them doesn’t mean you should use them. Here are a couple caveats to keep in mind while writing:
- Only use words your narrator would realistically know and naturally use.
- Avoid obscure words your audience can’t figure out via context.
These caveats are important, because words only have power if the reader understands what they mean. It’s why simple words can be so effective — they resonate through their clarity.
Likewise, using the specific names of objects can add crisp specificity to your writing, but only so long as you incorporate them clearly and naturally.
Long story short?
Don’t worry about your vocabulary. As long as you read regularly you’ll be fine, but if you do want to more actively expand your vocab, know that the names of things is the best place to start. (Verbs, as a side note, would be the next best use of your time. The right verb can really make a sentence sing.)
Good luck, and good writing, everybody!
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