Friday Fun – How Important is a Good Vocabulary?

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: We recently asked you what questions you’d like answered in our Friday Fun post. Today, we’re answering the following reader question:


JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: I don’t think you have to read the Oxford English Dictionary cover to cover in order to be a great writer, but I do think that an ever-growing vocabulary is a writing asset that should not be overlooked. That said, some of the best writing uses the simplest language. E.B. White and Hemingway were masters of a minimalist style that was highly evocative despite using mostly run-of-the-mill words.

In the context of your wanting to take part in NaNoWriMo this year, I’d say that you shouldn’t worry about vocabulary at all. NaNoWriMo is about getting words on the page. Full stop. It’s not about artistry or craft; it’s about putting your butt in the chair and racking up word count. AFTER NaNoWriMo, however, you’re going to want to revise and edit what you’ve written. That’s the point to start looking at word choice and refining your writing, sentence by sentence.

LL HeadshotLee Laughlin: I do think having a broad vocabulary is important to being a successful writer. That said, different genres have different expectations for vocabulary. The best thing you can do is read heavily in the genre you wish to publish.  Read best sellers and read books with low rankings. This gives you an idea of what the audience expects.

I second Jamie, don’t worry about vocabulary for NaNo. Just write. Write early write often and oh yeah, write a lot. NaNo is about capturing the muse.

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: I think it’s important to have a love for writing and reading, and by natural extension a love for words. You may not always have the right word at the tip of your tongue, but you can figure it out when you need to.

Anything goes in NaNo, including how to spell! NaNo is all about getting the story out of your head and onto the page. The words can be fixed later.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin: Vocabulary only matters if you want to be understood! And then it matters who you’re writing for.  The poet T.S. Eliot says it best in Little Giddings:

                                    And every phrase

And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,

Every poem an epitaph.


14 thoughts on “Friday Fun – How Important is a Good Vocabulary?

  1. Phew! Thanks for such a motivational post! For someone like me, who isn’t a native English speaker this post is quite encouraging.
    I do have a love for words, especially words of the English language, however I often worry about my vocabulary not being quite good enough or using the wrong grammar whenever I write.

    Nonetheless I am VERY excited to take part in the NaNo for the first time this year.

    Good luck everyone and let’s do this!! 🙂

  2. I’m also a non-native English speaker from a country with a completely different alphabet, and I always have at the back of my mind that worry about my vocabulary. And yet, I’ve been published in magazines and I’m working on my 2nd novel. If I can do it, others can too. Keep a good thesaurus handy, and you should be fine. It’s a good way to learn new words as well.

  3. My vote is an unequivocal–Yes! Now, while I’m not a NaNo person, I’m definitely an advocate for vocabulary use. Another word for “writer” is “wordsmith.” I don’t believe a writer should cram his narrative with difficult vocabulary, but a writer must be involved with words, as many as possible.

    Remember Faulkner’s criticism of Hemingway? “He’s afraid of sending the reader to a dictionary.” And Hemingway’s rebuttal: “Poor Faulkner he doesn’t know that one doesn’t need big words to show big emotions.”

    I prefer Hemingway’s style. But, vocabulary attainment is a must. I’m not just referring to “big” words. T.S. Eliot’s poem (Thank you Deborah!) is a perfect example. The poem reflects a wide vocabulary with such words as, “diffident,” “ostentatious,” and “pedantic.” He also does something else.

    Language–words–as we all know, slip and slide on us. As Jacques Derrida pointed out language changes in meaning over time, a la Deconstruction. I would be willing to bet that most young persons and many of us older ladies and gentlemen would read the word “commerce” in Eliot’s poem and immediately think of trade and business. In the poem though I believe he uses it to mean “to converse” which is an older definition of the word. It’s perfect.

    So I think a deep vocabulary isn’t just knowing a lot of difficult words, but understanding the “full” definition of words and the ability to weave those terms into your narrative, thus adding levels of meaning and richness that will surely enhance the reader’s experience.

  4. Pingback: Friday Fun – How Important is a Good Vocabulary? – Bad Ambience

  5. Having a good vocabulary can be great. Although, the way the words flow across the paper. Is the word like the wind that brushes against the leaves of a tree. Or is it like a river and how rapidly or not as it streams. I’m no writer, but sentence structure is like a work of art or a musical sheet?

  6. You need enough words to tell an interesting story in a form that others can understand. Having too many words can often be more of a curse than a blessing – they might look good on the page but nobody knows what you’re trying to say. I think it’s more about having an appropriate vocabulary for the genre you write in; not necessarily an extensive collection of words at your fingertips.

  7. English is my second language. I don’t like to use the same word twice in one paragraph, but therefore I use the thesaurus. It gives you quite a few options and picking the most suitable word is fun. When I cant think of an appropriate word, I just use the first word I can think of and when I edit, a better word often comes to mind.

  8. Pingback: The 4 Best Books for Writers ⋆ BMW Quality Writing

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