Your Treasury of Words
In the last issue of Fiction Fix, my column outlined various levels of structure in writing, starting with the letters used in words to considering how your writing relates to other literature. Now I would like to examine these different levels in more detail. I won’t present an article about every level; for example, in the earlier article my two paragraphs on letters basically covered everything I have to say on that topic. But on the next level up, words, I have much more to share.
Your Active Vocabulary
Words are fundamental to writing. Precisely the right word – le mot juste – can make a sentence, a poem, a title or an advertising slogan. In order to have access to that right word, you need to improve your vocabulary constantly.
Improving your vocabulary sounds like a dull task, rather like studying for a test, but hopefully as a writer you rejoice in words and their meanings. I love the German word for vocabulary: Wortschatz. Translated literally it means “treasury of words.” That’s how I think of my vocabulary, as a treasure box full of words, a collection containing my favorite pieces, which I wear every day - some might say too often - and other pieces taken out less frequently, needing polish and gathering dust.
Your vocabulary can be divided into two basic groups. There is your active vocabulary, the words which you use without prompting. Your passive vocabulary consists of words which don’t come to mind easily but which you understand without difficulty. Finally, there is the rest; in other words, all the words which you don’t know.
One goal for the writer is to express thoughts in such a way that the reader feels as if the thoughts are exactly what the reader would say – except that you, the writer, have said it better. One step toward achieving this is the employment words which are in the passive vocabulary of your readers. To rephrase, your readers should understand most of the words in your story without having to scurry to a dictionary, but the words you have chosen are not necessarily the ones they would choose themselves. Hopefully, your words are better!
To use words, they have to be in your active vocabulary. So, how do you increase your active vocabulary? Consider starting with the following:
These techniques will contribute first to your passive vocabulary, but generally, the larger your passive vocabulary the larger your active vocabulary. To increase your active vocabulary, you should be deliberately active about it. When you have the time, slow down and search for another word. Use a thesaurus to find a synonym; most word processors have thesauri in them these days. (The word thesaurus is derived from the Greek and Latin words for treasure.) As you type in your “new” word or say it aloud, you take a step toward moving it from the passive to the active category.
Use Words Correctly
This recommendation seems so obvious that it should not be worth including; alas, I have encountered numerous “writers” who not only use words incorrectly, but even seem not to care. They make mistakes both in how they spell words – for example writing “loose” when meaning “lose” – and in how they use words. I recently read a story which contained the sentence: “How dare her!” when the author should have written, “How dare she!”
For a couple of websites with lists of common mistakes and their corrections, try
But many errors are less common; what should you do about them? A frequent cause is writing down a word which sounds similar to the one you want to use. In the same story containing, “How dare her!” another sentence went thus: “She winched at the pain logged deep in her being.” The sentence should have been: “She winced at the pain lodged deep in her being.”
How do you minimize such errors? You have to flog away at your vocabulary and your knowledge of grammar. You have to look words up in the dictionary when you aren’t absolutely sure. After you’re done, you need to proof your work thoroughly. You can refresh your own eyes either by waiting to read it, or by reading it aloud, or reading the sections in a different order than usual. Another alternative is to ask someone else to read it.
Don’t kid yourself that it doesn’t matter. Editors may read your work and assume that the rest of your story is put together about as well as your spelling (they may be right). Readers may become so frustrated that they stop reading. Even worse, they stop paying attention to your story, and start hunting for the next typo.
Without knowing what your story is about, here are a few suggestions which will probably strengthen your writing:
Reduce your use of intensifiers
Intensifiers are words or phrases which add emphasis but little or no meaning. Here are some examples: just, quite, rather, somewhat, very. A writer might write, in a first draft: He was rather short. It’s as if the writer hesitated to write: He was short. But perhaps your character isn’t very short, only rather short. In this case you’re better off with a more descriptive sentence: He was tall enough to grab the wine and beer glasses from the two lowest shelves, but the elegant stemware, the champagne flutes and the brandy snifters, gleamed high above him beyond reach.
Use positives instead of negatives
In your first draft, you might write: She was not happy. When you review and edit, you may want to rewrite the sentence as: She was sad. All right, this example is uninspiring, so let’s try another: She was not serious. You could rewrite thusly: She was droll. Rewriting so that you employ positives instead of negatives can alter the meaning, so you need to be careful. This is also an instance of where having the larger vocabulary helps.
Vary the words you use
When you review your writing, watch for using the same word too often, or too close together. Beware, also of different forms of the same word. I once discovered the following passage:
Red Eagle leaned against the black lacquered door and looked down at the man with a determined look. Shane looked up at him with a slight smile.
Obviously, too many forms of the word look; some of them should be replaced with substitutes. Again, this is easier for the writer with a large vocabulary.
Use uncommon words infrequently
The more uncommon a word is, the more striking, the less often it should appear. A trick is to use the more natural word second; this makes it seem less as if you are straining to find synonyms.
This doesn’t apply to the word “said”
Writing the word said over and over in dialogue becomes tiresome, and amateurs will insert alternatives: screamed, shrilled, exclaimed, blurted out, declared, pronounced, averred, whispered, muttered, and so on. Although the occasional substitution is good, frequently varying your dialogue attributions calls unwanted attention to them. Your readers will notice these words instead of the dialogue. Is that what you want?
Consider your characters and what words they would use
Your characters should not all be using the same vocabulary. The language used by teenagers is different from the language used by tax accountants. The immigrant taxi driver in New York City does not use the same words as the physics professor of physics hoping for a Nobel Prize. If your characters are different from each other, their language should be too.
Not the Last Word
Many more words could be written about words. Many more words have been written about words. Hopefully, you enjoy them and appreciate them. They are the tools and the jewels in the writer’s treasury.
About the Writer: Victoria Grossack is the author of Iokaste:
The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. She is working on her own
series of novels, set in Bronze Age Greece. There’s exciting news about
Iokaste: even the Greeks want to read it! Learn more about
Iokaste and other books in the series at
Tapestry of Bronze.
Victoria also teaches the
Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.
About the Writer:
Victoria Grossack is the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. She is working on her own series of novels, set in Bronze Age Greece. There’s exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks want to read it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze.
Victoria also teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.