Friday, April 27, 2012

Casting for a Better Vocabulary: Go Fish

"Writers fish for the right words like fishermen fish for, um, whatever those aquatic creatures with fins and gills are called." --Jarod Kintz (source: Goodreads)

I thought this was a pretty cool quote, and decided to see where it might lead if I pursued it. And, as you might guess, I found myself on a fishing expedition. I remembered that Stephen King, in his book On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, suggests it "behooves" the writer to construct their own toolbox of writer's tools with vocabulary being at the top of the tray. I decided to build on that idea, but, instead of a toolbox, I'm going to pack a tackle box. Now I've never been much of a fisherman (fisherwoman? fisherperson?) myself--though my son always liked to fish, and we still have his old tackle box around here somewhere--but having said that, I still decided to...ahem...dip my toes into the water of this metaphor. Here goes.

In my vocabulary tackle box I will pack:

1. Lures. Books make great lures. "Read voraciously. It's undeniable that reading is the most effective way to get new vocabulary." --10 Sure-Fire Strategies to Improve Your Vocabulary.

2. Hooks. Be intentional. Hook words on purpose. "Find a new word each day for the next twenty-one days," says Marshall J. Cook, How to Write with the Skill of a  Master and the Genius of a Child. "This kind of exploration, fueled by a childish curiosity to find the names for things, can yield immense rewards for your emerging master writer...(and) help you develop your flexibility in exploring the full power of the words you already know."

3. Fishing line. Cast in wider waters of vocabulary words. For example, Cook also suggests studying the meanings of words from other languages for special insights. He shares: "The word for friend in one American Indian dialect translates literally as 'one who carries my sorrows on his back.' What a beautiful sentiment, and what a marvelous testimony to the spirit of the people who created such a language."

4. Sinkers. Sinkers are used to plumb bait to a depth where the fish live or are biting. Go to greater depths, too, in writing, by learning new words. Robert Harris in 1062 Vocabulary Words makes this case with his discussion on shades and degrees of meaning...exactness of meaning ...nuance...and clarification of concept.

5. Bobbers. These are the gaily-colored little floats that signal a fish is tugging on the line. And that, my friend, is the greatest thrill--at least it was for me those few times, as a child, my grandmother would take us kids to the lake. And then pulling the line up and finding a catch at the end--what fun! So should it be with learning vocabulary words--make it fun. Are you a crossword puzzle fan? Like games such as Boggle and Scrabble? "Having fun with words is one of the most fun and effective ways to build your vocabulary and thereby make your writing stand out. Enjoy words. Savor them. Find out their etymology, their uses, their synonyms and antonyms. When you have fun with words, it will show in your writing." ---Jacob Richman

6. Stringers. Fishermen collect their catch and join them together on a stringer, holding the fish close and fresh in the water until ready to go. So a writer has a stringer of her own: the dictionary. "Read the dictionary often," says Steven Taylor Goldsberry, The Writer's Book of Wisdom. "The loose words will inspire you to join some together."

7. Swivels. Swivels help the fisherman connect equipment such as one fishing line to another, or the line with sinkers and lures--giving them more opportunity for precise fishing. An expanded vocabulary connects the writer's thoughts and story flow. Having a good vocabulary is more than knowing a large amount of words, however. Luciano at's Top 3 Reasons to Improve Your Vocabulary, says, "The point of having a good vocabulary is being able to choose words with greater precision."

Vocabulary (n. the stock of words used as by a person, group of people, or profession; all the words of a language) in the broadest sense is a great wide pond, a pond of words from which to draw. Writing is communicating, and to communicate more effectively, the writer should intentionally cast for new words, just the right word, words that express more clearly what the writer is trying to convey.

And expanding one's vocabulary doesn't have to be a dry, boring, task-oriented exercise. It, like a fishing excursion, can be fun. So why not pick up your fishing pole, equipped with all the supplies needed in your tackle box, and head out to catch some words? The day is sunny. The breeze is blowing. The pond calls. Can you feel it?

Helpful links:
Merriam-Webster's Online Word of the Day
Think Map Visual Thesaurus
Creative Ways to Learn Vocabulary Words
Free Vocabulary Learning Games


  1. Hi Kenda -

    Your post beautifully captures the writer's love for finding just the right word. I often work forever on a single sentence, trying again and again to make it perfect. But I have to admit, I sometimes read it over later and realize that the word I thought was "just right" was actually just right for ME to say - but not for my character. And then, to continue your metaphor, I have to "throw it back." That's okay, there are plenty more possibilities in that sea of words. :)


    1. Peggy--you've hit on another aspect of the fishing metaphor, thank you! Those words that aren't quite right do get thrown back in, don't they? Appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for stopping by...

  2. Ah yes, the perfect word can lift a story from ordinary to terrific. I usually don't pause long enough during a first draft to find the right word--it breaks my forward momentum--but during the rewrite, I can spend an hour searching for just the right term.

    I'm definitely a vocab geek, though; a favorite pasttime amongst my high school crowd was to search out words no one else knew. My favorite: floccinaucinihilipilifcator. Used to be it could only be found in the Oxford Dictionary....

    1. Cheryl, I love your favorite word! Thanks for sharing. A word I came across recently that you might like: 'hyperpolysyllabicomania'--meaning, a fondness for big words. Ha!

  3. I love this post! What a great way to add to your writing tackle box. I refer to that section of Stephen King's book often.