The Importance of a Voluminous Vocabulary

I have recently started looking into the Writers of the Future contest, and I discovered many sites offering tips for doing well in the contest, such as this one by past-winner Brad Torgersen. I also came across the blog of David Farland, who offers writing tips every couple of days.

Farland recently wrote about the importance of what he called a writer’s “poetics”: the word choice, tone, and style found in a writer’s voice (or that of their characters). Farland suggests reading and writing poetry to get a better sense of rhythm and tone as well as precise word selection. Coincidentally enough, I also read this article about the correlation between vocabulary and other signals of knowledge and intelligence, and the likelihood of successful completion of advanced education.

Well, perhaps it was a coincidence. Or perhaps it was because I was already thinking about ways to increase my own working vocabulary. While re-reading some of my rough drafts, I noticed that I tend to be somewhat verbose, using several words when one word–the right word–would suffice. Yet, for some reason, that right word didn’t come to me when I sat down to write. Maybe it was the rush of creativity. Maybe precision is better left for editing anyway. Regardless, I wanted those right words to come more quickly, more easily. I want the right words to flow from my character’s mouth. I want my characters to have a voice as unique as my own.

Perhaps these goals will always remain aspirational. Perhaps my vocabulary will improve, but never to my satisfaction. Perhaps this is a natural desire among all writers, but particularly beginning writers. But it led me to redouble my efforts toward improving my vocabulary. I talked to friends, such as Heather Demetrios on her use of poetry in her writing process. I recalled that Nabokov was an avid reader of dictionaries and a regular consumer of high-level periodicals. He wrote, read, and translated poetry.

And then it hit me. I have let subscriptions to such periodicals expire. I can’t remember the last time I read more than one poem at a sitting. And I read blog posts and comments all day–not exactly paragons of eloquence. What did I conclude? I found myself remembering the old computer science phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Time to step up my game, to reclaim my word nerd status. And like writing itself, I expect it to be both frustrating and inspiring, a chore and a wonder. Hopefully, the results will speak for themselves.

What methods do you use? Do you read poetry? Which poets? Do you read before you write or at other times? Do you write poetry? Do you read other sources to expand your vocabulary? If so, which ones. I’d love to see what works for you and then share it with others.