I always thought I had a good vocabulary, acing those “It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power” quizzes in Reader’s Digest, the magazine my parents subscribed to religiously, along with The Cattleman (which gave me a lifelong case of giggles over the term “AI.”)
So why did a suggestion I found in an article from a writing magazine throw me? It was so simple -- list all the words beginning with a particular letter I could think of in five minutes.
I’d sit baffled, bewildered and befuddled until my timer dinged, unable to think of more than a handful of the most common words. I recognized words on a page. But they hadn’t yet moved into my working -- that is, writing -- vocabulary.
This isn’t my problem only. John Gardner’s iconic The Art of Fiction addressed the problem of limited vocabulary among writing students. And it’s not a shortage of long, Latinate words, but of simple English ones. Eyes opened, I became amazed at the number of short, seemingly common words that baffled members of writing groups.
I’ll give people who don’t deal with horses a pass for not knowing the meaning of “withers.” Or of “chock” if they’ve never changed a tire. But our characters might ride a horse or get caught with a flat. They need the words to deal with whatever situation they find themselves in.
Returning to the late Mr. Gardner, his suggestion for vocabulary building, as best I remember, was to write down words from a dictionary. Which I did, for about three days. As I learned from a business volume whose writer probably couldn’t care less about vocabulary, instilling beneficial habits takes more than willpower. It takes rewards, the kind games provide. And with apologies to the ghost of Mr. Gardner, if there’s anything less rewarding than writing words from a dictionary, I hope never to find it.
My favorite word game for rewards? Crossword puzzles. I don’t recommend the New York Times puzzles, filled with in-jokes only helpful if you plan to write exclusively for denizens of Manhattan. Try the simple crosswords with answers like “dregs, ooze, cosset, kingly.” It’s okay if you prefer Scrabble or cryptograms or acrostics. The Internet has given rise to a plethora of online word games. There’s even a book based on the Reader’s Digest quizzes.
Whatever you do, just find some vocabulary builder so rewarding you can’t help sticking to it. Tell your family you’re not wasting time playing games, you’re doing serious writing work.
I can’t help mentioning a volume found at my local bookstore, Vocabulary Cartoons. You’ll laugh -- and never forget “insouciant” again. It’s also available online at www.vocabularycartoons.com/ .
And that five-minute exercise that initially stumped and stymied me? I’m still with it, years later. Now the problem is finding some way to stop the flow of words. But that’s not a bad thing for a writer.