A Writer’s Vocabulary

I’m an admitted NYT crossword puzzle nut, although I’m not always the first one finished. Like comic writer David Sedaris, I often get stumped as the puzzles’ difficulty increases through the week. I’ve noticed, too that I rarely use some of the more obscure or lengthy words I find in the crosswords.
Writing Tip for Today: I don’t know about you, but the bigger my vocabulary grows, the less often I get a chance to show it off.  I’ve heard more than once that a writer should strive for clarity (no pun intended) rather than off-putting “one hundred dollar words.” Here are some thoughts on word choices:

  • Be Particular. Never use a modifier (adverb) when a particular verb will do. We’ve all heard that “ly” words (adverbs) are not our friends. Go through your last draft and cross out all adverbs. Replace with verbs that describe action in a particular way.
  • Be Active. Another old but valuable idea eschews the passive “to be” construction with active verbs. Go through your draft and circle all the “is,” “was,” “are” and “were” you spot. See if a more active noun-verb-direct object sentence paints a better word picture.
  • Lose the “Ings.” If you see many “was walking,” “is looking,” or similar gerund usage, underline the “was ing” and replace with the simple past tense version of the “ing” verb. Thus, “was walking” becomes “walked.”
  • Particular Nouns, Too. Avoid vague nouns that don’t buy you much: thing, stuff, something, everything. You don’t always have to cite name brands (such as saying it’s a Corvette not a car), but always keep your reader in mind. Are you helping the reader envision the same word picture you had when you wrote it?
  • Remember Your Tone. Most of us aren’t writing doctoral theses, and the tone of our work shouldn’t sound like one. If you want to cultivate reader trust, keep the reader close and intimate and convey your ideas without sounding stentorian (look it up) use precise but plain language. Now that’s Clarity.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

3 comments on “A Writer’s Vocabulary

  1. I believe gerunds are “-ing” words used as nouns.
    Examples: Swimming is my favorite sport. Golfing was my father’s. Everyone loves my singing.

  2. True, Lynn, but I call attention to the little buggers this way. The present/past progressive has so little meaning these days. But you are right! A gerund is a verb used as a noun. I should’ve said: use the active voice, not the past progressive, when possible.

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