A writer’s vocabulary is the single most powerful weapon in his or her arsenal. It is words that make us what we are, that and the way that we use them. For the average adult, it ranges between 20,000 and 35,000 words. Don’t ask me how many words I personally have – I have no idea. I think I’m right about the middle of that particular bell curve.

One of the ways that kids are encouraged to extend their vocabularies is by the “five-word” method. Pick a book that on any given page (or so) might have five words they don’t know. Then get a good dictionary and look those five words up. It worked for me, but I’m a bookworm. I have a dictionary that I’ve had for twenty years. It’s followed me from move to move, along with a thesaurus. Believe me, I’ve used both of them.

Some joker heard me mention the “five words method” once, went to a used bookstore and got an old textbook from the 60’s on Irregular geometry. He knew I was not the best on mathematics (probably why I enjoyed my English and writing classes) and wanted to play a prank.

I took the book and thanked him. I still have it somewhere, although haven’t read it in a while. I just happen to hate algebra, but love geometry. Still I applied the “five words method” to this book. In the Internet age, there are a bunch of different ways to look up words now that sometimes blow my old trusty paperback dictionary out of the water, and now for that old geometry book more explanation is there. A squared plus B squared still equals C squared.

Sometimes, though, there are no reference books available to you. For that matter, no cell tower signal, WiFi, or even battery charge available. It is then that you are forced to rely on the mental library of your vocabulary and the time spent to build it up.

Let’s say you need to write something on the social aspects of kitten pictures on Facebook. I will bet that there is a good chunk of Internet bandwidth devoted to these cute furballs, in both still and moving form. So you do a little research, spend six hours at Lolcats, and determine that some people like kittens, some don’t. I do, and I get highly amused.

It’s not hard to write about a cat. Furry, warm, ignores you until they want something, sleeps all day, plays all night. Stuff like that. If you want to pick up more of a challenge, write about the differences between going EVA from the Space Shuttle and going on a Crusade quest, then you need to have different sets of vocabulary. (And some imagination, too.)

21st century low-orbit travel and 12th century time-of-war travel couldn’t be much more different, but both are dangerous. I picked those two examples out of thin air, and so I would have to research to write about it, but I’m pretty sure that my vocabulary would need to be extended a little bit to write about both of them in the same piece.

Then again, it might be fun to write about Saladin and the Space Shuttle. Inspiration strikes.

So, build up your vocabulary. Grab a dictionary and find those entries that end in “see such-and-such.” See how many times you can go see such-and-such. Keep track of what words you follow, then find the antonyms for those words. It can be a little boring, but building up a vocabulary of words to call upon when there isn’t Internet available helps.

If you really want to confuse yourself (and who doesn’t) pick a language that you don’t know, and see if you can find the translations for the words you kept track of earlier. Then we get into cognates and the French term faux amis, or ‘false friends.’ That is a subject for later, I promise.

Any kind of vocabulary building exercise will do, and I recommend looking some of them up and running through them. It can only help strengthen your writing.

Happy writing!

-JB Steele

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