You can spot a mediocre writer from miles away.
Flat verbs. Obtuse nouns. Lame metaphors. Absence of stories.
I should know. I used to be one. [And compared to a David Mamet or William Faulkner or David Ogilvy, I still am.]
In regards to the mediocre writers, it seems to me that they’d want an edge. That they’d kill to get their hands on words that crank out power like a Floyd Mayweather right hook.
That they’d do whatever they could. Even read unorthodox books.
A Very Brief History on How I Fell in Love with Words
I fell into writing because I loved words. But you can love the wrong words.
Case in point.
I remember telling one of my college professors [or maybe it was a high school teacher, which means he was also the gym teacher AND the health/sex ed instructor–yuck!] that I loved words.
That words were important to me. That I hunted down rare, interesting words in my leisure time. I circled them and piled them in my notebook. Words like these:
Basorexia An overwhelming desire to neck or kiss
Eccedentesiaist One who fakes a smile
Jentacular Pertaining to breakfast.
Nelipot Someone who talks without shoes
Petrichor The smell of rain on dry ground
Recumbentibus A knockout blow
Slubberdegullion A filthy slobbering person
Wanweird An unhappy fate
The teachers nodded kindly. Sniffed. Went on their way. I didn’t understand. These were some hot words. Or were they?
The Problem with 12th Grade Words
See anything strange about those words?
Raise your hand if you said “seems pretty complicated that the average person wouldn’t know what those words meant.”
Copywriting stud Bill Jayme [he came up with the Psychology Today ad headline “Do You Close the Bathroom Even When You Are Home Alone?”] believed that when you used low-rent, fifth grade words you were insulting the reader’s intelligence.
He believed in the 12th grade word.
Perhaps his breed of readers were smarter than ours.I doubt it. But that’s another story.
Unfortunately, the words above are words that belong in a scientific journal. People who have a legitimate PhD.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t EVER use those words.
Feel free to use them–just sparingly. Like once every thousand words. [How many times have I upset that formula in this post? Free nap time on Tuesdays and Thursdays for anyone who gets it right.]
Besides, when I said I was in love with words that’s what I meant.
I loved words.
I collected them like a child collects rare insects. Which means I didn’t intend to use them in any constructive way than to show them off to anyone marginally interested.
And when I did, the results were awful.
The Disaster That Was Demian Writing Essay Papers
In college [maybe this happened in high school, but I honestly can NOT tell you what I did in high school nor when I was ever required to write something nor what I learned nor how I got my diploma–I was a public school product]…
…especially during the remedial English classes I had to take [since I didn’t learn the basics of English grammar in junior or high school], I wrote papers based on my favorite words.
In other words, I started with a word like recumbentibus and tried to tap, shove, weld and ramrod some kind of essay around that one word.
As you can probably guess, every essay I wrote was rubbish.
Typical critiques were “Paper lacks focus” or “Seems like you’re trying to hard.”
Who wouldn’t struggle when they were trying to write about their summer vacation and the keyword was recumbentitbus? [Even though that was my own self-imposed limitation, I blamed the teachers anyway.]
And that was the problem. I started every paper backwards.
Instead of just writing and allowing my native vocabulary to naturally fall into place I wrestled to get words and ideas to abnormally fit around the words I loved so much.
That’s not what you are to do with this.
Building your vocabulary is meant to arm you with the right words when you need those words. Unforurtunately you may never use words you learned.
As long as your writing carries a clear, concise and compelling cadence, if you only use one of the words I’m about to share with you, so be it.
What You’ve Finally Been Waiting For
Let me ask you: Where do you get the words you use?
I hope you said books. At least articles. Blog post is okay but if it’s the only way then you need help.
Reading is central to good writing.
As is reading wide.
So set your religious objections aside for a moment as I introduce you to one of the best–marginally unorthodox methods–to developing a wicked vocabulary.
The King James Version of the Bible.
Why the KJV and not say something slightly more readable like the NIV or God forbid, The Message?
The point is to pick up words that vibrate with life. That bristle on the page. That choke people. And the KJV is chock full of those words.
Bullock [which is the name of a local vasectomy surgeon, I swear.]
See what I mean. Those are fighting words. Hot words. Sawtooth words.
Okay, so, do you recognize anything different about these words versus the words I shared earlier?
They’re shorter. Check. They’re action-oriented. Check. And they’re immediately recognizable. Check.
And that’s the kind of vocabulary you can expect to pick up when you read the KJV.
An Unorthodox Summer Reading List
But how much KJV should you read? And how should you read it? Let me show you.
Read Job. Lamentations. Psalms. And Ecclesiastes. In that order.
You’ll get a low-grade vocabulary surge as you read some pretty potent stories and scenes. Warning: it will be a history lesson in the realm of human suffering without any obvious answers.
But it will also teach you to think like a philosopher. And a psychologist [two great ways to becoming better writers]. And teach you that blind optimism is a stupid default setting.
Reality is a mixed bag of pain and pleasure and will always be that way. No getting around it.
Once you’re done reading those four books [this is going to be a great summer of reading, right!?], move on to Jonah, 1 Samuel, Judges and one of the Gospels, preferably John.
After you beef up that vocabulary muscle you need to next beef up the story-telling one.
In these books you’ll encounter and probably learn for the first time where the story of David and Goliath, Samson, water to wine miracle–all stories frequently encountered in classic and contemporary writing–and will make you seem slightly more literate than you are now.
Because that’s the name of the game, right? Getting better at our craft.
So tell me, what’s your favorite unconventional source for great vocabulary words? And slightly off the subject, what are you reading this summer? I’m curious. Let me know in the comments below. Make recommendations. Then…