Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
We hear time and time again that great writing overcomes all sorts of handicaps–minor social media involvement,being unagented, trying how to wedge into a tight market. While writing well isn’t a panacea for those disabilities, it certainly can take a writer a long way down the publishing road. Today let’s look at one aspect of fine writing: vocabulary.
First let’s take a little test. It’s easy because it’s fill-in-the-blank, and no “right” answers exist.
- As the woman approached the traffic light, she stepped on the gas and drove ___(adverb)_____________.
- The breeze ______(verb)_____ the air.
- Her _____(adjective)______ brown hair ____(verb)_____ down her back.
For the first sentence, my impulse was to insert “with alacrity.” That’s kind of unusual, wouldn’t you say? But here’s the saddest part of my response: I want to apologize for it. That phrase seems kind of high falutin’. I want to change my answer to something more commonplace. But I’ve always loved words, and sometimes fancy terms just pop out, quite unbidden.
Here’s my second thought, which is even sadder than my initial embarrassment: I can’t recall the last time I learned a new word. I used to buy flip calendars that offered a new word every day of the year. Then I tried to use that word in a sentence that day. I also would write down words I didn’t know as I read through a book and then look up the word and re-read the paragraph I had found it in.
I haven’t lost interest in expanding my vocabulary, but somewhere along the way I’ve stopped intentionally working on it. And I don’t know when I last found myself reading along and being stopped by a word I wasn’t acquainted with. I don’t think that’s the case because I know tons of words but rather because writers aren’t expanding their vocabularies and therefore they aren’t expanding mine.
Looking back at the words you used on the test, are they ordinary, run-of-the-mill words? or words that create a tone or image that might cause a reader to pause? are they evocative or common?
If you haven’t befriended a word, it won’t just show up when you’re crafting your manuscript. I confess I’ve grown lazy and have developed the habit of clicking on “thesaurus” with my mouse when I’m searching for the best word. I consider that a pretty pathetic way to write because the number of words offered is minimal and often don’t convey the intent I had in mind. And if we start out with a small vocabulary, a thesaurus, even a good one, simply aids us in employing a word that might not have the correct nuance.
Should you mentally be arguing with me over the power of a strong vocabulary, let me show you an instance in which choosing the right words makes all the difference between ho-hum and oh-my. Once you’re published, you’ll be asked to write endorsements. The more recognizable your name becomes, the more endorsements you have the opportunity to write.
Often endorsements sound almost glib. Think about the words we usually see in them: informative, helpful, enjoyable, a must-read, I couldn’t put it down. I’m sure you could add others.
But an endorsement can serve the endorser as well as the endorsee. A finely-crafted endorsement can make the reader want to read the endorser’s book. Here’s one that did just that for me:
“Lori Benton gives us seasons in her debut novel Burning Sky. Seasons of planting corn, beans and pumpkins as backdrops to the ripening and challenges of lives working through chaos after a war and a terrible personal tragedy. The author gives us seasons of the journey through loss, risk, family and love. The author’s voice is mesmerizing with evocative phrases like ‘The air inside the cabin swirled with stale memories, echoes of once familiar voices trapped within, awaiting her coming to free them.’ Set on a frontier homestead in New York in 1784, we meet distinctive characters I came quickly to care about. And the promises of the opening poetic question of Burning Sky/Willa ‘Will the land remember’ is answered with passion and grace and the satisfaction of a good harvest. Enjoy this wonderful novel.”
—Jane Kirkpatrick, award-winning author of One Glorious Ambition
Obviously Jane not only read Lori’s book, but Jane also loved it. Yet she didn’t dash down the first thought that occurred to her; rather than gushing, she introduced us to what she found lush about the book. Her carefully crafted endorsement fills me with longing to read both Lori’s and Jane’s work.
Do you work at increasing your vocabulary? If so, how?
In what ways would a vaster vocabulary enrich your writing?
Might a better vocabulary hinder your writing in some ways?
For fun, share the words you used in the test.
Do writers make their books lackluster with the words they use? Click to tweet.
Does your vocabulary keep your writing from being topnotch? Click to tweet.
Why vocabulary could be the most important tool to add to your writing kit. Click to tweet.