Learning new words isn't easy.
It's frustrating when we can’t use a term even after seeing it several times or finding it in the dictionary.
When talking about ‘using’ or ‘knowing’ new words, we should make the distinction between ‘passive’ knowledge and ‘active’. With passive understanding, we can recognise a term and figure out what it means, but we cannot use the word in our own speaking or writing.
Turning passive knowledge into active knowledge is a crucial skill for writers.
Precision is what builds authority in your writing, and authority is what makes words valuable.
For writers whose first language is not English, vocabulary is especially important. Your language level and the value of your message are not the same thing, but readers make snap decisions to click away or view your work negatively simply because of one misplaced or repeated word.
Building authority isn’t just about learning hundreds of synonyms; writers can find currency in variety of word form so they can stay on topic and away from repetition.
How Writers can Grow their Vocabulary and Use New Words
According to a leading academic in the field, we need up to seventeen repetitions of a word to cement it in our active memory. Frequency is essential for acquiring vocabulary, but so is efficiency.
“Repetition is important in language learning, but not necessarily the kind of repetition provided by writing a word over and over again.” Dr. Timothy Shanahan.
Put simply, relying on lists is not an efficient way to learn and apply new words. Instead, we must recognise, record, and practise with new words.
First and foremost, you need a clear objective. To ‘improve’ vocabulary is not a measurable goal. Consider one of the following:
- To learn and apply five new words/phrases per week.
- To master a wide range of vocabulary for your academic subject or writing niche.
- To reach 1,000 new words on a vocabulary app.
- To receive positive feedback about your word choices from a colleague or reader.
- To use a thesaurus to avoid repetition before submitting writing.
When you have a clear goal, you can set your sights on recognising new terms.
To learn efficiently and effectively, try these techniques:
Use trusted sources of content — newspapers, influential digital writers, literature, and publications with strong editorial practices.
Subscribe to a Word of the Day email or post. This will give you the daily kick to learn or activate archaic, specific, or idiomatic phrases in English.
Change the word’s format to remember it better. After viewing it on screen, apply a colour to the word, write it down, or say it.
Search for repeated words or phrases which contribute greatly to the meaning of sentences. These are important terms to learn. Before looking up a definition, pay attention to the context of the sentence. What kind of writing is it? What is the topic here? How does this word or phrase interact with the words around it?
Investigate the different uses of the term via dictionaries, its etymology, commonality of use, and examples of its use.
Take a mental picture or associate an image with the word. This is proven to help with spelling recognition and memorisation.
All of this interaction with the term ensures that you understand its use well. It also builds repetitions, so you’re more likely to recall the word next writing session.
This is the crucial second part of the process which many writers ignore. If you don’t record new words and phrases, you may understand their meaning, but you won’t be able to add them to your active vocabulary.
Most writers read and write in front of a computer, so I suggest building a spreadsheet of words and keeping it open so you can drop in new terms while reading.
Here are a few columns you may consider adding to your vocabulary spreadsheet.
- Part of speech (noun, adjective, verb, etc.)
- Topic of association
- Words it collocates with (use the Oxford collocations dictionary to check)
- Other word forms (e.g. frustration, frustrate, frustrated)
- Example sentence where you found the word
Completing entries for just some of these columns on your spreadsheet will help you get those seventeen repetitions in. Each time your think about the word and type in related information, you start to change your vocabulary from passive to active. And by just adding three words per day, you can increase your active vocabulary by 1095 words per year!
This spreadsheet will become an incredibly powerful tool for copywriters who need emotive words based on a particular product or for content writers who produce work in a particular niche. Looking at your sheet before starting will enliven your writing and even get those ideas firing.
Practice does not have to equal horrible brain pain. You don’t have to stare at a list and choose existing facts or figures to forget. We remember lexical items best when we use the creative and practical sides of our brains. So, don’t just stare at a list, get creative.
Here are a few ideas to help turn the passive items from your vocab spreadsheet into active lexis.
Make learning a game. Using multiple-choice apps like Memrise, freerice, or Quizlet, can be a good addition to your writing development or study. If these aren’t entertaining enough, then play Scrabble online, do a word search or even complete the daily Wordle. All of these games get your mind working on phonics and engaged in the recall of spellings and meanings.
Another factor to consider when practising is what type of learner you are. Visual, auditory, kinesthetic? However you take in new data, make the words and chunks of language you learn your own. Transfer them from screen to paper, draw pictures, record your voice, or invent a movement or sign. By creating something new, you use both sides of your brain and can recall these bits of information better.
Set a challenge with rewards or consequences. This helps to ‘gamify’ your vocab learning. Apps work well because you win badges or trophies. In real life your reward might be heading out for a walk, adding a muffin to your coffee order or watching your favourite show. Sanctions might include cooking (instead of ordering out), or blocking social media for an hour.
One handy challenge to set is to use 5 new words or phrases per week. Include them in your latest piece of writing (if appropriate). In order to truly activate vocabulary, you have to get it down on paper and hit ‘publish’.
Finally, get feedback from colleagues, mentors or readers. Yes, you may make a few errors with your use of new vocab, but what’s worse — a misplaced term or sticking to the same old set of tools for your writing?
Remember that the biggest difference in terms of writing authority (and pay), comes at the upper end of the market. Boosting your vocabulary will help move your writing ability and career forward.
(Read the full version of this article on Medium)
Misplaced apostrophes are some of the most glaring errors when native speakers read texts in English. Here are some tips to help you avoid any apostrophe catastrophes.
1. Add ’s to indicate possession for singular nouns (even if the noun ends in 's').
e.g. Donald's trousers are missing / James's trousers are filthy.
2. For plurals, add an apostrophe only.
e.g. The Simpsons’ house has four bedrooms.
3. In informal writing, apostrophes contract words to mirror speech.
e.g. I'm (I am), 's (is), 're (they/we/you are), 'll (will), 'd (had/would), n't (not)
4. In dialogue, apostrophes show shortened word endings.
e.g. "He wrote somethin' in his lil' notebook," said Cletus.
5. Be careful of these typical errors:
Your vs you’re, there, their & they’re, its vs it’s, haven’t vs don’t have
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Thanks for reading.
If you'd like me to cover a particular writing topic or grammar issue, just send me a message.
See you next month.