Writing Homework #5: Vocabulary

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More accurately speaking, this is reading homework. Let me explain.

When I was in ninth grade, every Friday in my English class we’d divide into groups of four and play Scrabble. There was only one week the entire year that I didn’t win my table. (Bragging, yes, but also the truth. I’m a Scrabble fiend, I wish I got to play more often.)

Late in the year, I was still undefeated, and one of my opponents complained to our teacher. “Mrs. Norris, why does Elena always win?”

Mrs. Norris answered, “Because she reads more than you.” Without batting an eyelash, of course.

There are vocabulary calendars and vocabulary games and vocabulary websites, and I’m certainly not discouraging anyone from using them–but the simplest way to learn more words is to read…

and to actually look up the words you don’t know.

The simple form of this homework is just that: commit to looking up unfamiliar words in whatever you’re reading, even if you’re relatively certain you’ve figured them out from context. Keep a scrap of paper handy to jot them down, if you don’t want to hop up in the middle of a chapter.

The longer form, for the over-achievers: keep a formal vocabulary journal, with an entry for each word containing the quote from the book you encountered it in, and the definition.

I have been since I started my reading challenges at the beginning of the year. A few of my examples:

  • exegesiscritical explanation or interpretation of text, esp. of Scripture. “Ignoring me, Frank went on with his scholarly exegesis.” Outlander, Diana Gabaldon.
  • campanology — the study of bells, encompassing both the technology and the history, methods, and traditions of bell-ringing as an art. “I assure your lordship that for the first time in my existence I regret that I have made no practical study of campanology.” The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers.
  • abstrusehard to understand; esoteric. “There was nothing abstruse about the prose.” In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead, James Lee Burke.
  • mansard — a hip roof, each face of which has a steeper lower part and a shallower upper part. “It’s quite graceful, as factories go: swag decorations, each with a rose in the centre, gabled windows, a mansard roof of green-and-purple slate.” The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood. (In this case, since I couldn’t quite picture it from the definition, I also image-searched it, and now I know precisely what it means. I lived in an apartment with a mansard roof once, and didn’t have any idea what to call it!)

Now, it’s unlikely most of these words are going to find their way into my writing immediately; though I do have exegesis in one of my drafts, as the character describes a long-winded sermon she’s listening to. Knowing more words is never a bad thing, for a writer. The more you know, the better the chance you’ll have the ones you need to tell your story properly.


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