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Lack of vocabulary for writing is a roadblock to quality writing. It is frustrating when we cannot effectively elaborate on ideas or express feelings due to limited word choice.
Our vocabulary can be categorized into passive vocabulary and active vocabulary. A passive vocabulary, also known as recognition vocabulary, refers to the words that we can recognize but cannot think of using when we speak or write. An active vocabulary includes the words we can use right away in our communication.
For example, when we need to describe a fast-growing upward trend, we can easily think of words like “increase fast” or “grow rapidly,” but may not readily use “surge” or “boom” for the description. That is because “increase” and “grow” are in most people’s active vocabulary, but “surge” and “boom” are not, even though they can recognize these words in reading.
Our passive vocabulary contains more words than the active one. As John Reynolds and Patricia Acres suggest, an effective way to improve writing is to “transfer words from your passive to the active vocabulary.”
The expansion of active vocabulary requires patience and consistent work. I would like to share three tips I’ve used for improving writing vocabulary:
1. Read a Lot
Reading and writing come hand in hand. Reading not only helps you gain knowledge and develop critical thinking, but also allows you to learn the use of words and expressions in context.
Reading is critical for learning new words and storing them in your verbal memory. Compared to memorizing words from a long vocabulary list, learning words in context is a more active way of learning. A word learned from reading is no longer just a symbol with one or more definitions; it works in sentences as part of an argument or a story, conveying a position, an attitude, or a mood. When you learn words in context, you remember it longer and understand its use better.
Reading enhances your ability to transfer words from the passive vocabulary to the active one. When you read, you have more opportunities to see the words stored in your passive vocabulary. The words will stop being passive as you become more familiar with them by frequently “meeting” them.
2. Record unfamiliar expressions in a journal
No matter how hard you try to memorize words or phrases, there’s no guarantee that the best expression can always flash to the tip of your pen when you need it. One useful method to retain a good collection of active vocabulary is to write down the new expressions in a journal.
When I encounter unfamiliar words or phrases, I write them down in a full sentence or a sentence fragment to keep them in context. For instance, instead of simply writing “blustery” in the note, I would write “A blustery wind howled around…” This allows me to create a mental image of a howling wind, which reinforces the memory of the word.
Moreover, the expressions should be categorized based on meanings or ideas. The human brain loves patterns and organization. When you organize vocabulary in a certain pattern, your brain can process information more efficiently.
For example, a category may be “criticism/negative reaction.” Under this label, I include expressions like:
… bring about a cascade of criticism
… garner negative attention
… cause an uproar
… draw a barrage of criticism
… face intense backlash
Periodically reviewing your vocabulary journal enables you to pass those expressions along to the long term memory.
Keeping a journal also makes it easier to retrieve the best words for certain ideas when you write articles. Even if you don’t remember what the exact words are, you know where to find them.
3. Practice using new expressions in your writing
Using new expressions in your writing is a dynamic and practical way to further reinforce the memory of those expressions and to practice the art of word choice. Since writing requires conscious efforts to develop and organize ideas in a meaningful way, it is excellent for practicing new words and phrases in context.
As you practice writing with specific, vivid words, you will notice the difference that accurate word choice can make to the quality of writing. You will also be more motivated to increase your active vocabulary.
Expanding vocabulary for writing takes a lot of practice. But it is a step that one has to take to become a better writer.
If you want to get more help on accumulating active vocabulary, check out my book Expand Vocabulary for Writing: 50 Overused Words and What to Say Instead.