I seem to have cracked one of my biggest obstacles to writing well: the excruciatingly slow growth of my vocabulary (have found a way to significantly speed it up, I mean, not crack it). Since I started writing in English, I have tried all kinds of methods to pound new words into my head and failed at each, adding maybe 10 new words per month or so, which was nothing. It got me mighty pissed that I couldn't retain the meaning of words like "inexorable" and "parsimony" and "celerity" and "doff" and "grandiloquent" and more complex words packed with layers of meaning like "egalitarianism" and "idiosyncrasy" and "meritocratic" and the like. I'd open up a new book and every few paragraphs would have to whip out my phone to look up that word or the other or whole phrases like "bona fide" or "tour de force" or "carpe diem" and such. It would drive me bananas that I came across the same words over and over and over again and failed to remember what they meant.
Then over the last month I have been astonished to find that the new system I'm using is finally fucking working! Fucking glorious hallelujah!!!
So I thought I'd share it with you in case you're struggling with the same shit, because the width and breadth of your vocabulary is everything. It will allow you to weave stories with ease and grace because you'll become the master of your toolbox. And the tools in your toolbox are words. But before I start, let me regress a bit and caution you.
DO THIS PROCESS DAILY.
Sorry to throw a little wrench into your excitedly spinning wheels. For this to work, like for any new skill you want to learn, you need to do it every bloody day. It takes me 2 hours every morning to go through the steps outlined below, and that's the time I had to procure somewhere, so I chopped off the liver from my social media time, because there simply aren't any more hours in a day, but it's paying off. It's paying off big time.
Well then, here we go.
1. I read every day and jot down new words.
When I read, I put every single word (every single one!) that I don't understand into a little Notes file called NEW WORDS on my phone. I do this every night (I read in the evenings). Oh, and I quickly look up every word in a translator app in Russian so I know what it means. Besides new words I also type in whole phrases, or any particular similes or personifications or metaphors or hyperboles that I liked or that struck me as unusual (because some ways of bending words in English still elude me and I need to see examples to create my own). You can see them in the picture above in the REACTION category.
2. I look up the words' etymologies and categorize them.
The next morning, before I start writing, I open up the NEW WORDS file on my laptop (Mac picks it up from my phone automatically) and dump them into a TextEdit file by the same name (pic above). Then I start going through them one by one, doing the following:
- I drop the word (or phrase) into Google Translate (in my case it's tuned to Russian, but you can just use it for English to see definitions and synonyms) and then I read the definitions in both Russian and English and I read all the synonyms so I can have a clear picture in my head of the other words that mean a similar thing.
- I drop the word into the etymology tool and read about it, then sometimes read about the composite words, if there are any.
- I drop the word into the appropriate category in my NEW WORDS TextEdit file until all of them are appropriated.
- I read through the old words in the file and delete the ones that I can recall without snooping (some of this drives me up the wall because I can't fucking remember them no matter what I do).
- Now that I have a fresh batch of words in every category I throw each stack but the REACTION and the PHRASES ones (these I mix up by hand) into a paragraph randomizer tool, randomize them, and put them back into the NEW WORDS file but now thoroughly mixed up so that the next morning when I read them, they're in the new order.
- I save the file and start writing.
3. When stumped for a good word, I look up etymology of similar simpler words.
Say I'm tired of using the word "walk." Instead of looking it up in a thesaurus (which I do too), I type it into the handy etymology thingy and look at the history of it. Usually there are other words denoting the same or similar meaning and so I make connections in my brain not simply to the synonyms but to the visualizations of those words, as though I saw them in a movie, and that helps me remember them better. Like "stroll" or "leap" or "roll" and so on.
4. When I read and come across a new word, I try to decode it before looking it up.
I have gleefully been able to decode words like "excoriate" by knowing that "ex-" means "off" and "coriate" sounds a bit like "core" so it must be "hide" or "skin" so "excoriate" must mean "strip off the skin," and sure enough when I looked it up, I was right!
5. Etymology pointed me numerous times to ties between Russian and English.
If you're a foreigner like me, perhaps this will blow your mind. It did mine. Never in my life did I know that a ton of words in both languages have the same PIE (Proto-Indo-European) roots, and by looking them up I was able to connect English words like "veritable" with Russian "vera" which means faith and comes from the same root. I literally squealed! I'll remember this forever. It got branded in my brain with hot iron. I only wish I knew about this before.
6. Etymology has shows me whole families of words.
I never knew that tryst ("place one waits trustingly”) is related to trust ("reliability, trustworthiness; trustiness, fidelity, faithfulness”) to true ("consistent with fact”) to tree ("to be firm, solid, steadfast”) to oak ("thing made of wood," especially the cross of the Crucifixion and a gallows such as Tyburn tree, famous gallows outside London) to beam (originally "living tree," then “tree, gallows, beam”) to be ("be, exist, come to be, become, happen”). I also never knew that these are all related too: undulation (wavy), inundation (an overflowing), redundant (be over-full), and (thereupon), undine (water spirit), abound (overflow), surround (to flood), vodka (little water). It's like I suddenly see the transparency of language like that guy in Matrix, what's his name...Neo.
7. I can make up my own words.
Now that I know how they're constructed, I can make up my own! Shakespeare invented about 1700 words. Why the hell can't I? Fuck yeah, I can. I'll start by mixing Russian and English.
So you see, this is a goldmine. And now that I have shared with you my secret, please send me boxes of subvookies right here, that's vodka cookies that make you feel heavenly, in case you were wondering. And yes, I just made it up and it's a word now. Thank you.