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[Writing] Vocabulary

category: Writing | course: Writing with Style | difficulty:

The vocabulary of the average person is more extensive than he or she thinks. They mistake being a writer for learning all sorts of fancy words. The truth however is that a good writer needs to tap into that complete vocabulary in their head, and choose his words carefully. A writer only reaches for the dictionary if there’s absolutely no other word that could convey his ideas perfectly. And that’s what this chapter is about. I’ll talk about being as clear and concise as possible and how to use your existing command of English.

Use Strong Verbs

The verb, together with the subject, is the life and soul of your sentences. Choosing the right verb shortens a sentence, removes unnecessary words and makes the action more powerful.

  • Simple Present or Past. These two are the strongest forms of a verb. Sometimes you simply can’t use them, but if that’s not the case: make sure you use one of these.
    • He finished work is better than He had finished work
  • Active and Passive: Use active verbs whenever you can. Only use passive verbs if you intend to emphasize the receiver or ‘victim’ of an action.
    • Mark hit John is better than John was hit by Mark.
  • Adverbs: They can weaken or repeat the meaning of a verb, and are used way too often. Remove them, or replace them with a stronger verb that has the same meaning.
    • He stared at her for hours is better than he looked at her intensely for hours.

Cut Down on Wordiness

As you are trying to convert an idea or action into a sentence on paper, it grows on words that don’t need to be there. A shorter sentence that is clear and says exactly the same, is always better than the lengthier alternative. We’ve already seen in the previous section that you can eliminate words by choosing stronger verbs. Here I will give some extra tips.

  • Remove every extraneous word: every sentence should have a point, something that takes the narrative one small (or giant) step further. Remove any words that sound or feel strange, or seem out of place. If you can’t find the point in what you’ve written, remove all of it and start over again.
  • Complication: Never use a difficult word if a shorter or more familiar word can be used in its place, without changing the meaning in any way.
    • He used his talents is better than he utilised his talents.
  • Don’t waste a syllable. Every word you write needs to count, and removing it should change the meaning or function of the whole sentence. Doing so makes sure strong parts of the story get the attention they deserve, and weak parts full of vague language and unnecessary additions are avoided.
  • Don’t use very. Most words have their own special word for their strongest meaning. Use those instead of putting very in front of everything. For example:
    • Very afraid should become terrified
    • Very risky should become perilous
  • Positive Statements. Negations should only be used for denial or antithesis. Use positive statements – which means without the word not anywhere in there – if that’s not the case.
    • He thought studying Math was useless is better than He didn’t think studying Math was of much use

To practice, you should try writing short stories, maybe even only one page. Just write it from the top of your head, and then reread it and remove any unnecessary parts. Do this several times, to see if you can get as much meaning as possible on one page.

Originality, Interest and Playfulness

Even in serious stories, playing with words takes your writing to the next level. Using original images and structures makes your writing unique and elegant, while typing the same clichés and basic sentences over and over comes off as lazy, unprofessional writing.

  • Play with words: Choose words that the beginning writer avoids or doesn’t think about, but the average reader understands.
    • A writer might use extreme pain, while agony is a better word that’s known to the average reader
  • Reject “First-level creativity”: If you feel a cliché coming up, stop right there. Write down in simple, basic language what you want to say. Then create word lists or webs, free-associate, be surprised by the images you find after 5, 10, 15 steps.
  • Interesting Names: Most people notice names more than anything. Giving something a name is often necessary for your story, and the same is true for naming the main characters. It is therefore useful, but not necessary, to provide interesting names. Names that mean something, names the foreshadow certain events, a name that sounds comical for the funny person, a dark, mysterious name for the badass, etcetera.
  • Original Imitation: When getting started as a writer, it’s perfectly honourable to imitate someone’s style or build upon smart, creative language from others. Learn how other people come up with their own style and linguistic inventions, and use that to upgrade your own skills. Nevertheless, never try to imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, however simple his or her method may seem.


I thought it would be fun to give you some exercises to immediately apply these principles. Try to make these sentences shorter, clearer and/or more elegant.

  • Yesterday, Peter was repeatedly telling Mark how to do his job.
  • Since John had thrown his computer out of his now broken window, his wife spoke badly of him.
  • Peter was never thinking about stopping doing his work, he worked his ass off without any twaddle.
  • Mark! He was shouting loudly. He was shouting as loud as he could, but Mark thought he should let sleeping dogs lie.
  • The demure man had been sentenced to five years in jail for embezzling, his enmity working against the feral, fractious, haughty human.
  • He said again what he said before, but now with more anger in his voice.


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