Saturday, July 6, 2019

For Writers: 5 Tips to Grow Your Vocabulary

by Tim Suddeth @TimSuddeth

Have you ever been writing along and then, suddenly, was stuck looking at the blinking curser (I know it’s cursor, but the other way seems more appropriate)? Either you don’t like the word you’re using or that perfect word on the tip of your brain just won’t materialize.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could telepathically send our thoughts, complete in Technicolor? I guess it would require a lot of self-filtering. Nobody should be exposed to the mud in my brain.

So, I guess I’m thankful we have to use words, even if it can be frustrating. My precious wife often ends an explanation that has ran off its rails with, ‘You know what I mean.’ It works with us because I usually know the context, and I like harmony in the house, but you don’t get away with that with your reader.

Each word brings with it a particular nuance, a little different history or context. Did the man pursue, chase, or follow the jogger? Which word best gets across what you are trying to say? Without becoming overused. What you write is all the reader knows. It’s up to you to make sure you present your message correctly and in a way they can understand, without possibly misunderstanding. 

Sometimes, it’s not only the meaning of the word, but also, the sound of it. How does it make the sentence flow? Isn’t a flower by any other name still as sweet? Uh, no. Doesn’t sound quite right, does it? Although we use written words, they still have particular sounds when read, even if read to ourselves. We want to keep our reader tuned into the story and not wondering why it sounds just a little off.

Ways To Grow Your Vocabulary

1. Read, read, read.
Read everything, even things outside of your favorite genres or topics.

Look for new words, not necessarily big words. Long words can put off your reader. Especially if they bring more attention to how smart the writer is rather than making the message clearer.

Look for how the writer describes things. Does it provoke your senses into the scene?

If you write bible stories or devotions, read memoirs and Christian living. What heart questions do you find often asked?

2. Use a dictionary or thesaurus
When you come across a new word, look it up. Make sure you have the correct definition. Why did they use that word and not one you’re more familiar with? Go back to the sentence and see how it fits.

Some thesauruses (you bet I looked up that spelling) will have a paragraph on the differences of the common synonyms. Just because it’s a synonym doesn’t mean it can always be used as a substitute.

3. Play word games.
For years, I’ve been playing the scrabble words in the newspaper. The more I do it, the easier it is to turn the mixed-up letters into words.

Recently I’ve started doing the crossword puzzles. I’ve been leery to start them because I didn’t want to go around all day trying to come up with a word. Being someone who struggles with remembering names, sometimes having it pop up two hours later, I didn’t want to tie up me brain processes like that.

So I tinkered with the rules. I wait until the next day when the answers come. My goal is to learn the words, not see how fast I can do it. When I get it wrong, it still reminds me of a word I don’t normally use.

Magazine and newspapers crossword puzzles are great ways to keep your vocabulary up-to-date and become familiar with current slang and idioms. They often use modern cultural references in their clues. I was taken aback, surprised (?), to learn that some of the answers were two words instead of one.

4. Read in the genre or on the subject you write. 
Above, I said to read everything. It’s just as important to read in the genre or on the topics you’re writing. What style of words do they use? I write mysteries. The differences in noir and cozy and police procedure are many and readers pick up on them immediately. That’s why a publisher or editor only has to read a page to see if the readers will accept your story.

This is especially important for specific topics, historical fiction, and regional stories. What specific words do they use? What is different about their dialogue?

For nonfiction, how do the writers explain or describe key concepts? What are the keywords that often come up and do they have a special nuance in your subject?

5. Remember the reader.
There is one caveat to building your vocabulary for your writing. Always, always, keep the reader in mind. Just because you’ve just learned a new word doesn’t mean you have to use it. If the majority, no, even if it’s just a few, of your readers may not know it, leave it out. If you must use it, make sure the context will help the reader understand it.

This is especially true in Christian nonfiction. Are you writing for the choir or the backslidden? See the ‘churchspeak’ there. And the implied judging? Try to use words your reader can both understand and accept, even if you’re delivering a tough message. Jesus was pretty good at it.

I think the humorist Dave Berry illustrated this care we need to take to make sure we write clearly. He described the lectures he gave to a “bunch of chemists and engineers about the importance of not saying, ‘It would be appreciated if you would contact the undersigned by telephone at your earliest convenience,’ and instead saying, ‘Please call me as soon as you can’”

Our words are our tools to share thoughts, stories, worlds, and wisdom to a willing reader. To use the right word, we first have to learn the right word.


Tim Suddeth has been published in Guideposts’ The Joy of Christmas and on He’s working on his third manuscript and looks forward to seeing his name on a cover. He is a member of ACFW and Cross n Pens. Tim’s lives in Greenville, SC with his wife, Vickie, and his happy 19-year-old autistic son, Madison. Visit Tim at and on Facebook and Twitter. He can be also reached at


  1. Great article, Tim! Goodness! Finding the right word is sometimes like trying to pull an apple from the tree, but you can’t reach it! Oh how many times I’ve scraped my brain for that perfect, easily understood, and impactful word! Thank you for sharing!

    1. Then it comes to you hours later. Been there.

  2. Another great post, Tim. About your #2, I've found that using an online search for synonyms leads to a group of words, then searching through a few of those for OTHER similar words, had led me to the word I ultimately used. Those things are sometimes 3 or 4 layers down, but I know them when I find them. Once I've gone to that much trouble, I record it in an old tablet of seldom-used words, along with it's definition. I don't care that they aren't in alphabetical order in my log - it's kinda fun to glance through there now & then and refresh my memory. It's a personalized log that would do no one but me any good, but it is a resource I've created for poetry AND prose writing. Best to you.
    Jay Wright; Foothills Writers Guild; Anderson, SC