What You Need in Your Writing Toolbox: A Strong Vocabulary

I have a confession (but you can’t tell my husband!): For many years now, I’ve had an ongoing love affair….

With words!

Okay, so it’s not exactly an incriminating confession, unless being nerdy is a crime. But logophilia, believe it or not, is a real, albeit harmless obsession, one we can use to our advantage as wordsmiths!

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved collecting new, exotic-sounding – and sometimes funny-sounding – words like they were colorful seashells or precious gems. Instead of doodling pictures of dogs and cats and bunny rabbits, I used to love sloppily scribbling down any old word ad nauseam, which eventually led to full sentences and childish tales. Even now, one of the great delights I experience while reading is stumbling across unfamiliar words and expressions that introduce me to wonderful ways to imagine, think, and describe anything from the mundane act of drinking coffee to the thrilling feat of soaring on  the back of a griffin (which I wrote about in my first novel, Moonbow).

I realize there are two kinds of readers, and therefore, two kinds of writers: the kind who appreciate vast, challenging vocabularies, and those who like to keep things simple.[1] While I personally get a bit peeved – not to mention terribly distracted – when every other sentence contains lofty vocabulary words that trip up my mental tongue as I read along, I do enjoy the judicious sprinkling of literary jewels such as “meretricious,” “blet,” “glaucous,” and “chrism.” When reading on my Kindle, it takes no time at all to hover over the unknown word and view its definition. If I’m reading a hard copy, I simply highlight the word and dog-ear its page to look up later.

As a writer, part of what makes my job fun – and certainly challenging, too – is finding original ways to set scenes, describe characters, and express ideas. Granted, not all of this comes down to whether one has an extensive vocabulary or not, but it sure makes the job a lot easier. For instance, in Dunamis, my current work-in-progress, my main characters are in Hades (that’s right – the underworld!) quite a bit, so having words in my toolbox other than “hot” and “unpleasant” was tremendously beneficial.

In the book I’m reading now by K.M. Weiland titled Dreamlander, I love that the author avoids using tired clichés and predictable adjectives when describing her world’s flora and mythical creatures. Even though Weiland and I refrain from using a plethora of words that are alien to our readers, employing the ones we do with focused, laser-like precision is a skill developed over time as we’ve dedicated ourselves to building an arsenal of words to draw upon. It’s one thing to know that “thorny,” “complex,” “intricate,” and “tricky” are all synonymous with “difficult,” and quite another thing to know which one best belongs in a given sentence.

Power of Vocabulary_Diana Anderson-Tyler

If you want to bulk up your vocabulary, here are some tips that I personally use and recommend:

Mark Unknown Words as You Read

As I mentioned earlier, don’t feel obligated to look up words as you read, as doing so may distract you from the story. But do highlight or take a picture of the word with your phone so you remember to find out its meaning later.

Record the New Words

When you come across new words, store them somewhere where you can readily access them for reviewing purposes. Looking at their definition once will not lock it safe in your brain!

I keep seasonal notes in my iPhone. For example, write now I’m adding to my “Spring Vocab’ note. On June 20th, I’ll create one just for “Summer Vocab.” I try to study the current list every day, and then transfer it to a Word Document when the season ends. In addition, I also have a “Dunamis Vocab” list that features words that could possibly be included in my work in progress.

Study the New Words

Remember pop quizzes in school? Well, to really get these fancy words to stick in your memory, we have to study them as if we’re going to be tested. Every night after I read for pleasure, I read just once through my vocab list, which, depending on its length, takes about five minutes. An even better way to learn them is to try and use one or two new words the next time you sit down to write!

Get an App and/or Take Online Quizzes

I recently downloaded the Vocabulary Builder app from Magoosh (I believe it’s only on iOS). It features 1200 words in a multiple-choice format with basic, intermediate, and advanced sections! I open this app when I’m bored waiting at the dentist’s office, the grocery store checkout line, in between sets of squats at the gym, etc.!  I also love the Merriam-Webster vocab quizzes!

Subscribe to “A. Word. A. Day”

Check out wordsmith.org/awad to sign up to receive a daily Vocabulary Word based on the current week’s theme. This week’s theme is “Words That Appear Misspelled” and has included words such as “gapeseed” and “windrow.” So fun!


I want to leave you with this quote from AWAD’s founder, Anu Garg:

“But each word helps to create the tone of the story, set the mood, build the atmosphere, and illustrate the characters’ sense of angor.”

All it takes to make “word” a weapon is to add an “s” to the beginning. Let words be the sword that delivers hard-hitting images, intriguing dialogue, as well as penetrating truths and poignancy to your prose.

By the way, the noun “angor,” according to today’s AWAD email, means,“ extreme anguish or mental distress.”

“But each word helps to create the tone of the story, set the mood, build the atmosphere, and illustrate the characters’ sense of angor.”


What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you enjoy learning new words as you read? I’d love to hear your opinion, as well as any tips and tricks you have for beefing up your vocab! Leave a comment below or tweet me at @dandersontyler!

Diana Anderson-Tyler writing blog

[1] I recently put down a very popular book because its vocabulary was dull and words were too often repeated.


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