The larger your vocabulary the better for your writing?

Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by LuminousTyto, Jul 6, 2012.

  1. Lightman

    Lightman Active Member

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    Having a big vocabulary means you're less likely to rely on the thesaurus and end up using a word you don't really understand.
     
  2. GoldenGhost

    GoldenGhost Senior Member

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    I mean, I have to agree with most inputs.. how could a large vocabulary hurt your writing? if not better it? The only importance of vocabulary is treating it like a tool kit.. the more tools you have, the wider range of things you can fix, make, and maintain, but, just like any tool, not every wrench fits every bolt, nor does a drill suffice when a screw-driver is the better choice.
     
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  3. Complex

    Complex New Member

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    Going with the tool kit analogy, sure having a command of many words allows better depictions of your thoughts, but not every tool is a good tool. You have your 'wrenches' like 'he said' 'she replied' and so on, but do you really need 'she responded' or 'she divulged'? Certain cases exist, but if I ever read 'She divulged' followed by a quote, then I will probably close the book. Fancy words are fine in moderation, but an author that picks random synonyms because they exist will not win brownie points and will likely irritate the reader. I can say something was 'big, large, giant', but I rather not see an over-sized bunny being referred to as 'prodigious'. Sometimes the best word is the simple word. If looking for synonyms of 'murder', I rather not see 'liquidation' or 'the works' being used unless it is in character, and never in plain prose. Just because you can use it doesn't mean you should.

    Example 2 for beating a dead horse:
    Common words are like metric units, they have a standards and are logical in function. A big 'vocabulary' toolset comprises of outmoded imperial units like chains and furlongs, perch, link or gill. Just because they can be used doesn't mean they should be used outside of a very specific set of circumstances. Use the word that naturally describes rather then stretch it out with an awkward vocabulary.
     
  4. BFGuru

    BFGuru Active Member

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    I never really thought about it that way. Thanks. I don't feel so...ugh...about stalling when I write.

    Though, true story, I facebooked how excited I was to work with this wonderfully hand dyed variegated yarn and my colleague at work read it and started teasing me at work. "What's variegated mean anyway? Why do you use these big words?" I simply picked up my knitting bag, walked over and opened it. "THIS is variegated. Isn't it pretty?" There really was no other word to describe it, and we both had a good chuckle after that (and the lace shrug I was knitting turned out beautifully).
     
  5. Thumpalumpacus

    Thumpalumpacus Alive in the Superunknown

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    It can impede the flow of the story, by needlessly distracting the reader. "The mood was gloomy" and "the mood was lugubrious" both say the same thing, essentially; but unless I have a damned good reason to choose the latter, I'm going to write "gloomy." The reader will be more likely to stay with my story rather than reach for the Webster's.
     
  6. Cogito

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Of your vocabulary is large but imprecise, it WILL hurt your writing. A proficient writer will choose the word that best fits the context, not merely the one that looks the most impressive or obscure.

    You can tell when a writer has gobbled up a thesaurus and vomited it over the page. The word variety is there, but the grasp on the subtleties of meaning -- the connotations as well as the denotations of a word -- just a little off.

    It's far better to have a smaller vocabulary that is surgically precise. The writers vocabulary will grow over time anyway. But the size of the vocabulary is meaningless if each word is only partially understood.

    Dictionary definitions will only take you to a certain point. Knowing what a word is NOT, and knowing what contexts it is appropriate for, is crucial. The information MAY all be there in the dictionary, or it may not. Even if the dictionary definition is complete and accurate, it is quite possible to interpret it incorrectly. Also, not all dictionary definitions are perfectly on target, especially for words in specialized or highly technical fields.
     
  7. Steph4136

    Steph4136 New Member

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    I'm sorry, but this made me laugh a bit. How can someone not know what variegated means? If anyone gardens or has house plants, you should know what it means. I can understand if someone doesn't knit (I knit too, enjoy it but it's a winter thing for me). And there is no other word for it when it comes to yarn. There are solid colors and variegated, that's it.
     
  8. mammamaia

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    only if you also have the talent and skills it takes to be a good writer in the first place... someone with a huge vocabulary can be a really awful writer, if s/he doesn't know how to use all those words well...
     
  9. minstrel

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Your objection is not to a huge vocabulary, but rather to an imperfect understanding of the words in it. If you don't properly understand the words and know where and how to use them, they really shouldn't count as part of your vocabulary.

    Once again, you are making the assumption that someone with a large vocabulary doesn't know how to use it properly. But a poor writer can misuse a small vocabulary, too. I agree that a writer who misuses words is a poor writer, whether he misuses obscure words or common words. Some writers, however, have large vocabularies and understand the nuances of all the words they know, and are capable of masterfully deploying their verbal artillery to dazzling effect. If some of their more poorly-educated readers have a hard time keeping up, let them reach for their dictionaries.

    I just object to the idea that fine and skilled writers should hold back because they should assume their readers are ignorant. I know you didn't specifically say that here, Cogito, but there's a whiff of that going through this thread. I just don't want to have to write down to people.
     
  10. Complex

    Complex New Member

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    Minstrel, its a bit more complicated then that. Writing naturally while still accurately lending description to the reader is the most important use of a good vocabulary. When you start entering the territory of 'does this word sounds good' versus 'is this a good word to describe X?', you are risking your writing. When rewriting with a big book of synonyms and you start replacing words to make your vocabulary seem larger then what it truly is, you will undoubtedly ruin the natural flow of the writing and readability in general.

    Good writers know that flow is everything. We often pronounce the words in our heads, multi syallable monstrosities really break the concentration of the reader. When it is a lot easier to say 'cat' than 'Felis silvestris catus', stick to using 'cat'.
     
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  11. chicagoliz

    chicagoliz Contributor Contributor

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    This issue comes up frequently when someone who is overly-impressed with their own vocabulary receives multiple criticisms that their work is unclear or overly "clunky" due to the volume of high value words. This criticism is not always leveled by someone who is too ignorant to understand the writing. Even when one understands the words, if there is a large number of them in a certain piece, that can bog it down.

    If this issue arises a lot, I think the author needs to reflect on what they're doing and whether they truly feel that the words they've used truly most clearly convey what they want to say. The answer is not always that the readers are too stupid to understand them. No one is saying that skilled writers should refrain from using precise and eloquent language because their readers are not smart enough to grasp what they mean.

    That said, this is right on:
    I guess we're walking a bit of a tight rope here. It's just that I feel like I hear the excuse "I'm not going to dumb myself down for people too ignorant to understand me" more frequently than it truly applies.
     
  12. ck1221

    ck1221 New Member

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    Correct me if I'm wrong here. I feel that everyone has a valid point, but dosent genre play a part? If you're writing a YA novel you wouldnt use words that a teenager wouldnt grasp or if your story involves someone who is a gang member or from the streets you would use more simplistic, if not slang terms right? Just my two cents.
     
  13. Youniquee

    Youniquee (◡‿◡✿) Contributor

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    I think target audience would be a better term :p But yes, I think YA novel would have more simplistic language.

    But dialogue and the actual prose will be written differently anyway...but even then, people do have to watch out what kinda vocab they let their character use. The same thing applies. The dialogue will sound unrealistic if the vocab isn't used right.
     
  14. minstrel

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    But this is exactly what I was arguing against. Read my post again. I don't rewrite with a big book of synonyms (I have a thesaurus, but I haven't opened it in years - it's just ballast on the bottom shelf of my bookcase) and I do not want to make my vocabulary seem larger than it is. I don't want to use a word that I don't understand thoroughly - all its denotations, connotations, nuances. I am not talking about someone who misuses words. I am talking about a writer who uses words properly. The right words, used with precision, do not ruin the flow of the writing; they lend it strength and grace.
     
  15. Thumpalumpacus

    Thumpalumpacus Alive in the Superunknown

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    This is something of a circular argument, in the absence of a standard for the term "the right words".

    Not all unusual words lend writing strength or grace. "Chatoyant" and "gleaming" are in most contexts interchangeable, but unless I were writing a treatise on gems, I would use the latter and not the former. The story itself will dictate word-choice, I think. There are also considerations like consonance, flow, and audience which influence word-choice.

    I think it's pretty subjective, and that fair points are being made here, all around. The different approaches are issues of style, it seems to me.
     
  16. Andrae Smith

    Andrae Smith The Fool and the Master Supporter Contributor

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    Sometimes the big word is not the right word... Often times it will interrupt the flow of the piece. It is great to make use of a dictionary or thesaurus when you already know words and just need a reference, but overall, it should read naturally. Reading is a lifelong process for writers. so you should be engaged in reading and writing even at the same time. the more you read the more you learn HOW TO USE the words you learn.
     
  17. lasm

    lasm Member

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    I think Cormac McCarthy is a good example of an author that clearly has a great vocabulary, but most of the time keeps his word choice simple. On the other hand, sometimes he needs a word like "catamite" (to pick one that I had to look up) and then it's there for him.
     
  18. lallylello

    lallylello New Member

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    I use a Thesaurus frequently, but not to increase my vocabulary. I'd never use a word from the Thesaurus or from anywhere that I didn't know already and wasn't already comfortable using. But, you know those moments when you've written something and it doesn't look quite right, or there's a better word on the tip of your tongue? That's the moment to dust off the Thesaurus and have a quick flick through to find your missing word.
    As for dumbing down to suit the audience (as mentioned earlier in this thread), I think a clever writer can include more 'highbrow' words (I could probably find a better word than 'highbrow' in my Thesaurus!), but use them in such a way that the meaning is clear to the reader. A pretentious writer rates his or her words by the number of letters in them and is out to prove how intelligent they are rather than tell a damn good yarn. There's a big difference between the two and I know whose book I'd read!
     
  19. thecoopertempleclause

    thecoopertempleclause New Member

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    I try to use the word or word combination which makes the point I want to make in the fewest characters and fits the tone of writing which I'm using. Also worth remember is that you should only use words where you know the meaning, not where you think you know the meaning.
     
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  20. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I think that to some extent this is being discussed as if the title of the thread were "The larger your vocabulary the better your writing", which would suggest that vocabulary is the most important element of writing. But it's "The larger your vocabulary the better _FOR_ your writing." I certainly can't see a down side to having an extensive vocabulary as long as you apply good judgement in using it.

    On the other hand, I wouldn't put vocabulary at or even near the top of the list of the skills that a writer should work on. A writer should read extensively, but putting a lot of extra work into mastering each unfamiliar word, when that time could be spent doing even more reading, strikes me as bad priorities.
     
  21. maidahl

    maidahl Banned

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    You don't want writing that sounds like your still studying for the SATs
     
  22. marktx

    marktx New Member

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    Reading is absolutely critical to writing well. Obviously there are vocabulary benefits, but the real payoffs are (1) it puts you in the mind of a reader, which is the person you are trying to reach, (2) it stretches your storytelling repertoire, showing you possibilities that would not otherwise occur to you, (3) it exposes you to different styles, enabling you to break out and find your own.

    Interestingly, although reading has expanded my own vocabulary, I am finding that my writing style is now less flowery than it was before. The key is finding the right word, not the most impressive one.
     
  23. maidahl

    maidahl Banned

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    Purple nurple writing=big linguistic turn-off. Nice point, mark.
     
  24. mammamaia

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    YA isn't a 'genre'... it's a 'market'... and yes, your target market's age range makes a big difference in what words you should and shouldn't use... genre doesn't...

    word choice to fit characters and reader ages has nothing to do with whether you have a large or small vocabulary, since you still have to have a large enough one to be varied enough in the words used and to choose the most appropriate words...
     
  25. Program

    Program Member

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    I'd think that when asked to describe something, one always has plenty of possible descriptions (and not a blank mind and the person saying, "Okay... what exactly is this 'thing' supposed to look like?"), but the problem is just that none of them ever seem to meet one's standards. Were you referring to finding and choosing the correct/best description? If that's the case, I don't think there are many people that just sit down in front of a computer and say, "Okay. This is the correct/best description for this scene: ..." and though it may be making things difficult, I'm sure that's natural. So this would be my response to choosing the correct description.

    Bigger vocabulary does help, but you also need to think about which word to choose. Forcing a giant dictionary into your brain won't expedite the writing process that much (though it can help you on things like standardized tests). Many times it just comes down to experience choosing words. It's like buying a present for someone. Even if you can buy any present you want in the world (you can pick any word from your dictionary), you still need to find the one you would most like to give to the recipient (the reader).

    Reading helps with choosing your words for description. It's useful to see the word choices of published authors. Unfortunately, what you are describing seems to be like constantly watching people play tennis to teach yourself how to play. Most people won't learn tennis very well just from watching professionals play. They actually have to pick up the racket themselves and hit some balls to develop their tennis skills. Similarly with writing, you can read as much as you possibly can, but it's very likely that picking the pencil (or keyboard) and experiencing choosing those words yourself will be much more beneficial. Luckily, once you play tennis very well, you can supplement (not replace) your skill development by watching the professionals - you'd know they're doing and the intentions behind each move. Similarly, if one gains a lot of experience with crafting sentences one would very likely notice many more things about professional authors' wording choices.

    For your final question, I always have trouble finding proper description. At first, there is always a pool of descriptions that could work, but I rarely ever like any of them. After thinking for a long time about describing what I want to describe - and maybe even moving on to something else - I may find what I was searching for and return to that section.
     

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