A Writer’s Vocabulary & Tips for Improving Yours

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Have you ever read a literary work and wondered at the range of vocabulary used within the work? Sometimes, the hardest thing for writers is finding the exact word, that perfect turn of phrase that conveys precisely what is meant. Sometimes, the exact word is elusive and understandably so because we do not always have that word in our vocabularies. Ideally, as writers, we should expand our vocabularies so we have suitable words at our fingertips, ready to convey the slightest nuance of meaning to our readers. Unfortunately, we might not all be equipped with encyclopedic memory or dictionary-like vocabularies. Lexicographer and dictionary expert Susan Dent posits the active vocabulary of an average English speaker is about 20,000 words, with a passive vocabulary of about 40,000 more words. The Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words in current use, 47,156 obsolete words, and 615,100 definitions. This suggests that each word, on the average, might have up to three definitions and we know, sometimes, those definitions are not always related. Research also reveals reading fiction widens our vocabularies more than non-fiction, simply because fiction uses wider vocabularies than non-fiction. It’s highly likely, therefore, you have a larger vocabulary if you are a wide reader of fiction. If you want to expand your vocabulary, I always recommend reading fiction. Not only is it enjoyable, it’s highly educational as well.

My penultimate session in writing courses always includes tips on how to improve writing style and formatting your work. One way to improve your writing is to review your word choices, identify weak, imprecise, or indefinite words and phrases and replace those with more picturesque and exact language.

The vocabulary of younger generations seems to be narrower than it ever was, with colloquial usage and catch-all words replacing more exact language. What is more appalling, yet, is how mass media has picked up on the use of weak language, settling for imprecise expressions rather than looking for the best word. As writers, there is no excuse for you to settle for the most common, most innocuous words that pop into your head. Some of those words involve adjectives modified with qualifiers or quantifiers. Nearly every adjective modified by “very” can be replaced by a more precise word. For example, “very small” = tiny, minute, minuscule, diminutive, petite, microscopic; “very big” = large, huge, humongous, gigantic, massive, colossal, vast, tremendous, monumental; “very dry” = arid, parched, dehydrated, withered, shriveled; “very tasty” = delicious, delectable, flavorful, mouthwatering, ambrosiac, luscious. These examples are, by no means, exhaustive. That is why a dictionary and a thesaurus are a writer’s best friends.

Prepositional idioms are often redundant and don’t deliver the same effect as a singular word. For example, “get up” can mean stand, rise, arise, awaken, advance; to “lie down on a bed” means exactly the same things as to “lie on the bed”–there is just no way to “lie up”; “go forward” = advance, proceed; “climb up” = ascend; “climb down” = descend; “shut down” = shut, close, terminate, end. I could go on and on with lists of words that can be replaced with more precise and more picturesque language. In fact, I could probably write a book or two or three filled with such replaceable words. In the meantime, check your friendly dictionary and thesaurus. If you don’t have a print copy handy, there’s always the Internet. A simple word search will give you multiple sites giving you not only synonyms and antonyms but usage as well. Who said writing was easy?

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There’s Always Something to Write About

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We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.
~John Updike, WD

I would not quickly agree with Updike that we’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. While our current world might not warrant wandering about on horses or in armor with swords at our sides or even bows slung across our backs, we have our chariots and our props, tools of the trade that we use to struggle through life. Probably the biggest challenge in contemporary literature is finding characters that are interesting enough to write about. We forget that people are interesting and as writers, we need to learn to bring out everything that is interesting about them. In my memoir writing classes, I have encountered people saying they have nothing to write about because nothing interesting has happened in their lives. Yet, as I guide them with tips, techniques, questions, and prompts, they suddenly find that there are so many interesting things that have happened in their lives. Now, they have more than enough to actually write about. I, on the other hand, have the quandary of what to write about first. I have encountered so many interesting people, places, and events in my modest and not too short life thus far, and the accumulation of memories is startling, when I think of it. People don’t need to be highly imaginative to become writers. They just need to learn how to use vivid descriptions, picturesque language, detailed imagery. It’s the details that make things more interesting. Remember when someone, possibly a grandparent or an uncle or aunt or even your parents, told a story that everyone enjoyed? They remember details that involve all our senses–sights, smells, sounds, textures, feelings–every little detail adds to creating a picture, a painting of something that happened, and if the action is as vividly described, then the painting becomes a movie clip or a staged scene, and when enough of those are strung together, you have a living, breathing movie in words. Isn’t writing grand?

On Writing: Dealing with Adverbs

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The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

~Stephen King

Quite recently in the world of writing, adverbs have been shunned, probably because of what Stephen King wrote in his iconic book On Writing, which provides writers with a great deal of advice on how to improve writing with his unique writing style and perspective. This really isn’t anything new. Ever since the very fist edition of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style was published in 1959, writing teachers have tried to impress on students of writing the concept of “less is more.” That King specifically cites adverbs has everyone jumping the bandwagon and cutting out any word ending in –ly from their works. I’d say that’s really a rash reaction, because adverbs are beautiful words that help the reader create an image in their mind. What writers need to remember is that there are different kinds of adverbs, and some are worse than others, insofar as leading a writer down the road to hell. The use of adverbs is closely linked with the need for writers to “show, not tell,” a skill that is more difficult to master than many writers think. Because adverbs, especially adverbs of manner, tell us how verbs act. For example, we say “He ran quickly” using the adverb “quickly” to describe how he ran. In this example, I’d say the use of the adverb ‘quickly’ is lazy, just because there are so many ways to describe running. The preferred and more effective option is to use the exact word, and in this case, ‘ran’ is not exact enough. To show how a person runs quickly, we can more effectively use the words raced, rushed, dashed, hurried—you get the idea. Choosing the more exact word is using more picturesque language with less words. Alternately, you can say “His legs pumped up and down as he pounded the ground with his feet, his face drenched with sweat pouring from his brow with the effort, touching all he passed with a rush of warm air.”

On the other hand, there are adverbs that have no better way of being said, such as adverbs of time and place. There’s no better way to say “today” than with the word ‘today’; there’s no easier way to say ‘up’ or ‘down’ than by using the adverbs exactly as they are. When using linking adverbs, you need to make sure they are necessary. Linking adverbs help describe sequence (then), cause and effect (consequently), and contrast (however) and give us better transition between ideas, phrases, and sentences. Be careful not to overuse linking adverbs, though. I advise against the use of evaluative adverbs in writing fiction because it introduces too much of the author’s opinion into the text; use evaluative adverbs only when they reflect a specific character’s thoughts. Authors need to be very careful not to be actively present in their stories, and leave the stories to the characters and their narrator. Even if you use the omniscient narrator, who sees and knows everything, you must be careful to maintain your narrator’s persona. If you want to write your personal opinions, then write creative nonfiction. Unless you want to sound like today’s younger speakers, be careful how you use degree adverbs—adverbs that show to what extent or degree something happens. Modern language has seen the introduction of some words to replace the word ‘much’ so instead of saying ‘much more’ or ‘much less’ we hear people saying ‘way more’ or ‘way less’ and so on. Unless your character has a terribly limited vocabulary, I’d limit the use of this colloquialism. Focusing adverbs can also be dispensed with most of the time because they tell the reader what to think, rather than show them things, and are generally a matter of opinion (in the same way I used the word ‘generally’ in this sentence).

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t use adverbs at all. Adverbs can be very effective when used judiciously. Sometimes, there isn’t enough time to ‘show’ the reader everything in full picturesque detail because sometimes the details are not that important. In that case, you can either use the adverb or eliminate the details, because they probably aren’t significant enough to include.

Brrr-ish months are here again

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After along time under a government that continued to flaunt its power, Canada has finally gone out in droves and voted out Stephen Harper. The new scenario involves a very strong Liberal majority government led by the young and charismatic Justin Trudeau. While many are celebrating Justin’s ascension to the Prime Minister’s seat, there are those who remember his father’s reign unhappily and rue the day Justin was elected into office. Really, there’s no way any government can please everyone, but in running governments, countries, and other such massive organizations, probably the best rule to go by is the Utilitarian philosophy which espouses the greater good. What we’re hoping for is a review and revision or revocation of all the policies and programs that were implemented without consultation and without any real positive values or output for Canadians. But, enough of politics, even if it is one of the topics people will always have something to say about. Let’s see what happens, give the new government a chance, and for goodness’s sake, participate!

What is coming up is another Halloween, yes. It’s that time of the year. The months end with –ber and are certainly sounding brrr-ish. Temperatures have dropped and we’ve even seen our first dusting of snow, although we’re still having more rain than snow. As ever, nature is being unpredictable, although I haven’t heard a lot of complaining about the cooler days. I imaging we’re all bracing for it. After all, what can be worse than the worst snowfall in decades? Need I mention the weather gods are predicting ice storms? Let’s not talk about bad things. As I was saying, Halloween, originally called All Hallow’s Eve or Hallowe’en, is believed to be of Celtic origin from the Samhein festival, as a celebration of the end of the harvest season and a time when the worlds of the living andMasks (2) the dead overlapped. There was a belief that the souls of the dead would be up and about. Because not all the dead souls were amiable, people wore costumes and masks to scare away those particularly fiendish souls, hence the tradition of wearing costumes. Of course, that certainly isn’t why children run around in costumes anymore, trick-or-treating throughout their neighborhood. Nowadays, many holidays are celebrated without the original reasons in mind, because the original conditions no longer exist. On the other hand, the holidays give us a major excuse for taking a day off and just having fun—or just taking a break from the daily rut by putting on yet another mask and costume to hide what they are at the moment.

The Snowy Owl

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I have seen few large wild birds in their natural habitat and my encounter with a snowy owl was an exception. It was late at night one winter when I was sitting in a car with a friend, chatting and enjoying the view of the frozen river and the white snow around us when a snowy owl landed, seemingly out of nowhere, on the boardwalk a few feet away from the car. It sat on snow, eying its surroundings, its magnificent head turning, its bright yellow eyes blinking occasionally.

For several minutes, it just sat in the cold snow, its wings not tucked in but trailing on the snow. When it finally moved, it was in a waddling walk, one wing tracing a shallow trail in the snow beside it. Clearly, the bird was not made for walking. After walking a bit, it flapped its wings and rose a few meters in air no higher than the top of a lamppost that cast its white glow into the cold air, then settled back on the ground as if exhausted and lost after a long journey from some snowy mountainous region in the Maritimes. Perhaps it had come across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, buffered by the recent snowfall and biting winds.

The owl was a splendid creature with its brown-and-black-tipped white feathers that made it look like it had silvery tufts tucked into its plumage. We assumed it might have hurt its wing and had sought respite on our island, finding shelter under the Hillsboro bridge. Before long, another owl, almost a pure white, landed a few feet farther than the first, but that one did not stay, launching over the frozen inlet and disappearing under the bridge before long. We surmised that the birds were mates and were seeking refuge because one of them had been hurt.

My companion, ever concerned, ever helpful, stepped out to see how badly hurt the bird on the ground might be, approaching it warily. He was concerned the bird might be attacked by a fox that had, only a short time earlier, prowled along the river’s edge on some nocturnal mission. I warned him to take care because owls, after all, are wild birds and predators, their small hooked beaks sharp, their long and threatening talons camouflaged under feathered feet. My friend stopped a little more than an arm’s length from the owl, thinking its wing broken, and for a split second, man and bird stood under the same circle of light, creating a frosty mist in the crisp night air. One second then the bird gathered its wings and lifted them, drawing ever so slightly closer to the man, hovering for but a moment, before it pulled away and lifted into the air, flying after its pair to find shelter under the bridge. Did the bird think it was being threatened? Would it have attacked the man? Perhaps the trailing wing was merely a ploy to attract prey. It could have spotted the fox and planned on abducting it, but encountering a creature larger than it could possibly lift across the icy inlet, it changed its mind and decided to retreat instead. We guessed it must have been that because it spread its majestic wings, longer across than my friend was tall–and he is not a small man–and swooped away, gliding like a white kite in the night without the slightest hint of an injury. It disappeared under the bridge, invisible in the shadows.

It was on the news, the next day, that a pair of snowy owls had taken up residence under the Hillsboro bridge, and after a few more days of being in the forefront of unusual events of interest only to the locals that long winter, the birds were found to have abandoned their temporary shelter. It was my first encounter with a bird that has long enthralled me because of its beauty and wildness and its symbolism as the wisest of creatures. It was more magnificent than any photograph could ever depict and, in making its choice to leave us, undoubtedly wise in choosing the wintry wilderness where it was born and, without human interference, will hopefully live out its life.

©Cindy Lapeña, 2015