Posted in Writing

Don’t Panic if Your Vocabulary is Inadequate


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

The commonest [tool] of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary. In this case, you can happily pack what you have without the slightest bit of guilty or inferiority […] Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it.

This may be one of the hardest things to learn as a new writer.

You do not, under any circumstance, need to stretch your vocabulary to make it as an author. You don’t need to go through your second or third draft and “dress up” your vocabulary, changing the occasional word in a sentence with something more colorful from the thesaurus.

Yes, there are successful authors with amazing vocabularies. The one I always go to is Donna Tartt and The Goldfinch. I read all 800 pages of that book in complete awe of her mastery of vocabulary and language. In any given paragraph I was amazed by what I was seeing.

And I also recognized that if I lived to be 1000 years old, I could never do what she does.

I’ve never had an impressive vocabulary in my writing. Sometimes I’ll surprise myself with a truly impressive sentence that I go back and read later and pat myself on the back. When you’re in the zone, when you’re so connected to your story and characters that real life effectively falls into the background, you can write some truly incredible things, trust me.

Sometimes these fabulous sentences stay in the manuscript. Other times they go. I can’t tell you how much great writing, some of my best really, has had to be deleted in the long run. My MFA thesis novel I’ve been working on since early 2017 has had pages and pages and pages of terrific polished writing deleted from the latest version.

Because here’s the deal. No matter how amazing your vocabulary is, if the sentence or paragraph or scene or chapter doesn’t help the story and characters, it needs to go. You cannot, under any circumstances, keep a scene in your novel that shouldn’t be there just because the vocabulary is well-chosen, just because the scene reads beautifully.

I’ve written a lot of novels over the years, and one of the hardest things to do is delete good writing. Writing that might make someone smile, that might make some professor of English somewhere say, damn.

But you know what’s one of the easiest things to do for me? Something that took me a few books to master?

Write the first draft of the novel—and all the other drafts too, really—with the vocabulary I have. Every time you stop and check the dictionary or thesaurus is time better served for the writing of your latest draft.

I’ll be honest that yes, sometimes I do use the dictionary and thesaurus. Usually it’s for help when I can’t find the right word to describe something, but always these tools are last resorts. You should pick the word that feels right and then keep going. If that word really bugs you three drafts down the road, you can take a minute and try to change it to something else.

But please, please, please, don’t fret about the strength of your vocabulary, or lack thereof. The reader is not going to care if your vocabulary isn’t spectacular. He or she is going to care about a great story well told, so get to doing that first and foremost.

Use what you’ve got. And do your best. That’s all that matters.

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