I could just say ‘keep a dictionary by the toilet’ and end this article there but I actually found a very efficient way for everyone to grow their vocabularies at alarming rates. Get ready to impress your friends!
Most people unintentionally grow their vocabulary over many years, kind of like how laborers and lumberjacks unintentionally grow muscle mass. So to intentionally grow your vocabulary is very similar to purposely growing a six pack or losing 300 pounds; it takes hard work and dedication. But with the tips and advice you’ll find below, the journey to tripling or doubling your vocabulary in the next year will not only be easier but more fun as well.
Before I spiel my secret, however, I want to share some additional knowledge that may save you gobs of time and hardship. If you wish to skip this additional knowledge, just scroll down to the picture of me holding an old leather booklet and read on from there.
I was going to write this article months ago, but I’m glad I decided to wait because, at the same time as learning so many new words with my special technique, I’ve also learned that it’s very important to know when to use the words you’ve learned. Growing a vocabulary is necessary for every writer or speaker but learning discipline is key. What do I mean by ‘discipline’ in this context? I mean don’t purposely structure or restructure your sentences JUST so that you can implement an exciting new word. To create a smooth read you must force yourself to only use the words that come naturally to you during the writing process. Let me explain this a bit more before we get to the good stuff.
When I first started intentionally building my vocabulary, my writing suddenly became unnatural and overly complicated because, rather than getting in the zone and letting my subconscious mind select the right words, I was strenuously trying to use as many big and new words as I possibly could. Even though this created some interesting and artistic paragraphs, I nevertheless created many headaches for my readers.
Reading, for many people, is a relaxing hobby–something they can do to enjoy their time. Therefore you take much of the fun away when you have them scrounging in a dictionary every three sentences. For my writing this problem of using too many new words was tenfold because I specialize in medieval fantasy and love archaic/medieval words. I flooded my writing with countless terms that most people will never hear or read in their lives. As much as I want to use a sexy medieval word sometimes, I know the better decision is to use the first word that comes to mind during the writing process (unless, of course, you have the habit of using a particular word too much).
So what’s the point of learning new words if you shouldn’t use them when you want? After you truly learn a word, have used it at least three times with a bit of strained effort, it will naturally start to find itself in your writing and speaking. About 80% of the words I’ve learned over the past year haven’t been shown in my writing yet, and now, unlike before, I know that’s a very good thing. In the future, after years of writing and honing my craft, those exciting words which I haven’t used yet, so long as I keep them in my vocabulary/memory, will one day find a natural place in my writing.
Now I’m about to contradict myself because there will be instances when a word you’ve recently learned should replace an old word in your completed writing. A perfect example of this is when I learned the word ‘linstock’. A linstock is a tool used to fire a cannon. Before I knew this, the characters in my writing were using torches to fire their cannons and so of course I had to go back and replace all those torches with linstocks. Situations like this are the rare exceptions.
On the other hand, reading for many others is an opportunity to learn; they love having to lookup a word in the dictionary. Like me when I read historical fiction from the early 20th century, I spend nearly just as much time in the dictionary as I do reading because I never let a word I don’t know slip by. But even readers like me, the ones who treat dictionaries like bibles, will admit that, when they’re reading a particularly suspenseful scene, it’s much better to have a smooth read so that the story flows unhindered. In some very rare cases I’ll let a word I don’t know slip by ONLY because I’m too eager to know what will happen next in the story.
With all that said, it’s finally time for you to learn my secret. How did I triple my vocabulary in a year? It’s quite simple.
Allow me to introduce you to my Book of Words, my very own handwritten dictionary/notepad/journal that I bring with me wherever I go.
Remember when I said ‘keep a dictionary by the toilet’? Well, my secret is somewhat similar except instead of a dictionary you’ll need a blank booklet and instead of a toilet you’ll need, literally, EVERYWHERE YOU GO!
After following the tips listed below, the blank pages of your newly acquired booklet will start to look like this:
Like a daily diary, you’ll start off by writing the date. Underneath the date you’ll scrawl down every unfamiliar word you come across throughout the day. I write down the words in capital letters just to make the page seem less jumbled. Beside the listed words, like I’ve done above, you should have space to write down the words’ definitions. It’s also useful to use symbols to identify if the word is a noun, verb, etc. On average I learn about 5 new words per day. Some days it’s only 1 or 2, and on others it’s 10 or 20!
So how do I come across these new words? By listening and reading! When I watch a Ted Talk there’s a good chance the speaker will use a word I don’t know and, knowing me, I’ll have to Google it. I never let a word I don’t know slip by. I do the same thing when I’m reading. And by reading everyday, you’ll watch your Book of Words grow and grow and grow. By writing your new words down, you’ll not only remember them more easily but you’ll also be able to go back and find them when you’re struggling to remember them.
Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll remember there’s a word for some certain thing I’m trying to describe but I won’t be able to recall it right off the bat. No worries! All I have to do, because I’ve dated my words, is remember roughly when I learned the word and then leaf through my Book until I find it again. Then–bam!–the word slides right into its slot. You’ll never forget a word again so long as you bring your Book of Words with you wherever you go.
But what if you’re one of those readers who hates stopping to look in a dictionary? Simple! If you’re willing to, you can scrawl down the word as fast as you can, highlight it, do whatever you have to do to remember it, and then once your reading session is over you can go back and Google the words you’ve listed to find their definitions. That, in fact, is exactly what I did during my reading session yesterday. I chose to do an hour of reading in the park and, since I didn’t have internet or a dictionary at the bench with me to define the unfamiliar words I found, I just wrote them down and later when I got home I sat at my desk and did some quick and easy Google searches. Here is a picture to show what that looks like:
For Tuesday, June 6th, as you can see, I discovered 7 words that I otherwise may’ve overlooked if I wasn’t intentionally trying to build my vocabulary. And by discovering words in a natural setting, as opposed to just poring idly through a dictionary, I typically remember when and where I learned these words and so they have a lot more meaning to me. For example, I’ll never forget the time I learned the word ‘machicolation’ because, rather than just finding it by skimming through the dictionary, I came across it via a speaker in a YouTube video and so whenever I hear or use the word ‘machicolation’, a string of memory comes attached to it.
Sometimes when I’m walking down the road or riding on the bus I’ll flip to a random page in my Book of Words and point at a word I haven’t used yet. I’ll turn the word around in my head, look at it from different angles, place it in different settings, all the while having the sole intention of using it in a natural setting one day.
Thanks for reading and I hope this helps!
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