If you’ve heard this advice for new writers before, it bears repeating: Read novels by other authors, especially, but not solely, in your genre. This is beneficial, but there’s something else you could or should do while you read, to help you improve your writing vocabulary.

We all have a vocabulary we use on a regular basis. If you’re a writer, you want to expand the word choices you have in your grab-bag. When you write fiction, you want to use the best action verbs, nouns, and modifiers you can. Yes, good or great writing is partially about how words are put together, but it’s also about the words, themselves.

The first thing you’ll notice as you read a novel is that if it’s an engaging story, you’ll get into it just as any reader might. That’s terrific. Enjoy the novel. Then reread it and pay attention to the writing. Pay attention to the creative aspects such as how the plot and characters were developed, as well as the technical aspects (punctuation, etc.) One thing to keep in mind: There are some differences between books written by British authors (or as though the author is British, e.g., Elizabeth George) and books written by American authors or for American readers. Not only will certain words be different between these two literary cultures, but so will some spellings and some of the punctuation. One example: Among is the American word; amongst is the British word. If you’re writing for American readers, stick to the standard rules.

Okay, with that out of the way, here’s how new writers can and should expand their vocabulary anytime they read another author’s work. You might expect me to say that when you come across a word you don’t know, write it down and look it up. That is a logical thing to do, and it seems obvious, but readers don’t always do this. However, that isn’t my strongest suggestion for building your writing vocabulary. What follows is.

Get a notebook, or use whatever system works for you, and create categories that fit your needs. Let me explain. As you read (or listen to people talk, or listen to movie or TV dialogue), add to your lists any verbs, modifiers, and nouns, which includes compound nouns, that get your attention (compound nouns are two words that act as one: roller coaster, grab-bag). You’ll be surprised at how many of these you’ve used in your writing, didn’t think to use, or perhaps didn’t know about.

You also want to keep a list of words and phrases for what affects your characters physically, emotionally, and so forth. Here are some examples.
-Hands: his face sank into his hands; he drove his hands into his pockets
-Skin: a sheen of perspiration blossomed on her face
-Body: tension coiled its way up his neck
-Mouth: she smiled with regret
-Mood: he strained to compose himself
-Posture: his arms hung flaccid at his sides
-Eyes: her eyes surveyed the room
-Voice: his voice faltered
-Talking: she jabbered away
-Laughing: a hearty laugh rumbled from his chest
-Walking: she wended her way through the park
-Face: she wore a gray hat and pinched features
-Action: he threw a wild punch
-Setting: the graceful façade of the house rose above the hedge
-Sounds: a heavy thump outside the window made her lurch from the bed
-Internal: one word came to mind about how she felt—wretched

Making note of words you read or hear is meant to inspire you to expand your ability to describe what’s going on internally and externally for and or around your characters. These lists are meant to guide you to write in a fresh way, rather than copy what someone else wrote. You’ll, hopefully, continue to add to these lists forever, but there is a best time to use them: after your first draft is completed and it’s time for the first (of several) revisions.

You see, it’s likely that when writing your first draft, you relied on your regular vocabulary, which is fine because you’ll write faster when you don’t pause to deliberate over every single word or phrase. You want to get the draft written so you can then focus on cleaning it up and making it the best read it can be. Unless your regular vocabulary is extensive, and even if it is, you still may need to look for better words or better ways to describe or express what’s going on. A thesaurus is a good idea, but you have to make certain you know what replacement words mean. It’s very easy to use an inappropriate word you found in a thesaurus because you erroneously believed all the words listed mean exactly the same thing. For example, if you look up sensual, you’ll see salacious listed. But they absolutely do not mean the same thing, which only a trip to a dictionary would clarify. The biggest advantage of creating your own lists is that you can create categories specific to your needs and likes, as in the example above, which makes it easy and convenient to look up better word or phrase choices.

The fact will always be this: Good and great writers work very hard to make writing seem easy. This includes deliberating about the best verbs, nouns, modifiers, and phrases to use, which is done primarily during the several revisions the novel goes through (or should go through). You can improve your ability to tell a story that fits your characters, and with a writing style that is uniquely yours, through usage of the best words and phrases for your story and genre.

As you read novels, notice how the words used are what make your heart race or make you laugh out loud or bring tears to your eyes. That’s how you want to right as well. Yes? Yes.

I wish you the best with your writing and progress.

Author's Bio: 

Joyce L. Shafer provides services for writers, with a focus on assisting new and indie authors. Services include Manuscript Evaluation, Substantive Editing, and Silent (Ghost) Rewriting/Editing, which includes converting plays and screenplays into novels. Her clients say she’s part editor, part teacher, part coach. Details available at http://editmybookandmore.weebly.com/.