October 29th 2010
The Skill List Project: Vocabulary
The last time I blogged here, I started The Skill List Project: an attempt to list the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Why? Partly as a way for me to think about the many aspects of writing sf; partly to tell would-be writers about skills they should try to develop; but mainly as a forum for anyone interested in fiction to analyze what specific skills are involved and how those skills can be improved.
This time around, we’re looking at the most basic building-blocks of writing: words.
Practically speaking, no one can know and understand all the words in English, especially if we include regional idioms and specialized technical vocabularies…but damn it, a writer should try. Writers who don’t know words are like doctors who don’t know anatomy.
At a minimum, knowing a word means knowing how to spell it.
(Spell-checking software is nice for catching typos, but it’s far too stupid to rely on as a substitute for using your brain.) Knowing a word also means understanding the word’s usage…the “proper” usage, as well as all the unspoken accretions that the word has picked up over time.
A few decades ago, the term “usage” implicitly meant “proper” usage: the gospel according to “leading experts.” My favorite dictionary (The Houghton Mifflin Canadian Dictionary of the English Language, now sadly out of print) sometimes had a “usage” discussion at the end of a word’s definitions. For example, here’s the one from “hopefully”:
Hopefully, as used to mean it is to be hoped or let us hope, is still not accepted by a substantial number of authorities on grammar and usage. The following example of hopefully in this sense is acceptable to only 44 per cent of the Usage Panel: Hopefully, we shall complete our work in June.
I love picturing a panel of experts voting on when a word is acceptable; there’s nobility in trying to hold back the tide of verbal sloppiness. Furthermore, as writers we should be cognizant of what usages are and aren’t “correct”—that’s part of our jobs. We can still abuse the heck out of words for artistic effect, but if we do, we should do so deliberately, not out of ignorance.
Suitability and Flavors
Beyond considerations of “proper” usage, there’s a broader question: When does a word fit in a particular context? Words may have identical dictionary definitions but different flavors. For example, consider “smart”, “intelligent”, “clever”, and “shrewd”. Each means roughly the same thing, but they leave the reader with different impressions. “Shrewd” comes with a hint of amorality or outright dishonesty; “clever” often suggests “too smart for their own good”; “smart” is usually said approvingly, while “intelligent” feels more neutral, but may also mean “book-smart, not people-smart”.
Good writers recognize such differences in flavors, and capitalize on those differences in order to nudge readers in certain directions. If I describe a character as shrewd, it predisposes the reader to wonder if the character is up to no good. I don’t have to spell things out…and indeed, I may be deliberately playing with the reader’s expectations. Whatever I intend, it’s important for me to know how readers are going to react to “shrewd” as opposed to any comparable word I might use. I don’t want the flavors of my words to clash with what I’m trying to accomplish.
This is why you shouldn’t blindly pull words out of dictionaries or thesauruses: the literal definition of a word seldom tells you the extra flavors that the word conveys to knowledgeable readers. When people use words they don’t thoroughly understand, it can be painful—just think of the way we wince when someone attempts to use slang that they don’t really “get.” You have to know a word inside and out before you use it…and you should know as many words as possible, so that they’re available for you to use if and when you need them.
(Of course, just because you know a word doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for a particular story. But that’s a topic for another day.)
How do you learn as many words as possible? By reading anything you can get your hands on…especially stuff that goes beyond your same-old-same-old, whatever that is. When you come across a new word, write it down. Write down the context too, so you’ll remember how it was used. Look up the meaning in a dictionary, but also check Google for other appearances of the word so you can see it in action in a number of contexts. Keep finding occurrences of the word until it’s no longer a stranger to you. That’s when you’re ready to use it yourself.
We’ll talk a lot more about words and word choice in some future posting, when we get around to skills associated with diction. For now though, I’ll turn the floor over to you: what are some tips for improving vocabulary, and really getting to know new words (as opposed to just making a passing acquaintance)? In the meantime, I’ll start working on the next installment of this project: learning to love grammar.
James Alan Gardner
James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.
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