While reading Jonathan Franzen’s National Book Award Winner, The Corrections, I realized the amount of words I simply do not know: rube, elephantine, elfin, tumid, the list goes on.
I don’t know if this is the case for everyone else, but for me, as a reader, I tend to gloss over words I don’t know and rely on figuring them out in context. If that doesn’t work I skip them all together, so long as they aren’t central to what the sentence is trying to say.
So I began a collection of words.
I went down to my school store and bought two packs of 5x8in index cards. I cut them into eighths and kept them close to me while reading Franzen and anything I might have had to read for class. Every time I came across a word I didn’t know I circled it in my book and looked it up. When finished reading I went back and wrote the definitions to the circled words on the cards. So far I have 137 from the first half of Franzen’s book alone.
To give my collection value I set aside 10 minutes of my day to read over my cards once or twice, reading aloud the definitions and letting them sink in. I don’t remember every single word (on a good day I’ll remember a quarter of them), but I am becoming acquainted with them.
So why do I do this?
You know those instances where the word you want escapes you? When you know it exists but you can’t quite get it out? When you want to describe the look of your sick protagonist and you come up with ill or under the weather but the word you really want is pallid?
Being word savvy fixes that and improves your writing in the process.
I realized that committing words to memory allows me to insert them into my sentences naturally instead of stitching them in from a thesaurus –– like I usually do –– and compromising my flow.
Instead of writing, “my old grandma who thought of foolish things,” I now say “My dote grandma who dreamed of gerontocracies,” –– which sounds much cooler.
To be clear, I do not suggest you raid the Oxford English Dictionary. I am not an advocate for three syllables-and-above words in writing. I actually enjoy simple and concise writing. However lurid words are key to such simple and concise prose, for a word like fob simply and concisely describes an action in one word that might otherwise take three.
Billy Collins, former US Poet Laureate, and an obvious connoisseur of words, is a master of this art. Collins’ poetry is praised for its simple, clear language. However, Collins knows that to spice up a poem, using effective words is key, frequently relying on words like coda, fatuous or vaporous, to advance his poetry.
And if Billy Collins isn’t convincing enough, a sharper vocab can potentially make you smarter, wealthier and even thinner!
So if you find yourself scratching your head at words frequently, run down to your local 99-cent store and grab yourself a pack of index cards. Every time you see a word you don’t know, circle it. Catalogue it in your cards. Keep it in the back of your mind. If your writing doesn’t improve or you don’t become a better person, then hell, at least show off your fancy words to your friends, –– be a logophile.