writing technique

Words, the long and the short of it

How many different words do you need to know in order to write a book? The works of James Joyce (excluding Finnegan’s Wake) include almost 30,000 unique words, which is a lot. You certainly don’t need that many. But not using them doesn’t necessarily mean not knowing them. According to the researchers at Test Your Vocab, an average native speaker knows 10,000 words by the age of eight, expanding to 20,000 to 35,000 words when they are adults. In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker puts the number higher – 60,000 words for an adult. But as he points out, “people can recognise vastly more words than they have occasion to use.” Furthermore, the unique word criterion may not be the best, since it counts, for example, walk, walks, walking and walked as separate words. If we count lemmas, or word families, instead, we have just one there – walk – and our vocabulary knowledge shrinks accordingly. Linguist Stuart Webb estimates that an adult native speaker knows 15,000 to 20,000 lemmas.

In our everyday conversation, we generally make do with far fewer. With 5000 words, we can have a decent, though limited, conversation, while with 10,000 the number of topics we can discuss increases dramatically. Theoretically, then, we could make do with three or four thousand words to write a novel. Original literature is written for the EFL market using only the two or three thousand most frequent words in English. I’ve read a number myself (a character in Painter Palaver produces such books), and it’s like being immersed in water at body temperature, meeting no resistance but getting no challenge either. Kind of dull, let’s say, even when the story’s decent.

That’s not to say we need to go the James Joyce way – there’s no link between size of vocabulary and quality of writing. Or rather I see it like the link between money and happiness – there has to be a basic amount, but above a certain threshold, you get no extra benefit.

What does this mean for writers? Notably that their productive vocabulary needs to be more readily accessible to them than it is to most non-writers. If you’re anything like me, a sizeable chunk of your time is spent searching for the ‘right’ word. In fact I hope for your sake that you’re not too much like me in that respect, because I suspect I spend far more time on that than most writers. That’s because I suffer from language attrition. For most of my life I’ve been exposed to far more French than English, so although English is my native tongue, I’ve now reached the point where I’m forgetting it. Anyone who tries learning a second language knows that without regular practice, it’s extremely hard to remember, but the same can apply to a first language. Not the syntax, which is largely mastered by the age of three and remains accessible thereafter, but the vocabulary. Words are easy to learn but also easy to forget.

As a result, I experience the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon more often than most : you know the word exists, you have an idea of its ‘shape’ – number of syllables, stress pattern, maybe a vowel sound or two – but the actual word won’t come. But I dare say you’ve experienced it too (am I right there? Comments welcome!) My assumption is that it’s part and parcel of every writer’s experience, and is one reason (amongst many others) why writing is such a challenging activity.

How do I cope? A combination of two approaches. The first is to accept it, recognise that good books can be written without recourse to an extensive vocabulary, and concentrate on using the words I do know to maximum effect. But while that may work to some extent, there are still many occasions when the word I want, the only one that will do, plays hard to get, like a key you’re trying to fish out of a drain hole. Only one thing for it in that case – the thesaurus.

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” Whether Stephen King, who wrote that in 1988, has changed his mind with advancing age I don’t know, but without a thesaurus I’d be sunk. The proviso is that I use it exclusively to fish those keys from the drain hole – words I once knew and used regularly, but can’t quite reach anymore. Not for me the word that struts onto the page like a garishly dressed dandy whose only aim is to upstage all the other words quietly doing their job. I just want the word that knows its place, fits alongside the others, and lets the sentence flow. Upon which contumacious rodomontade I shall terminate.


38 thoughts on “Words, the long and the short of it

  1. Thanks for this, Curtis. I’m with you on researching the “right” word. Time consuming, but satisfying.

    I love the transformative power of words. Here’s my favorite example.

    Anne Sullivan communicated with Helen Keller by manually signing into the child’s hand. Helen quickly learned to form the letters correctly and in the correct order, but did not know she was spelling a word, or even that words existed.

    Then, one day, Anne took Helen to the water pump outside and put Helen’s hand under the spout. As the cool water gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other hand the word “w-a-t-e-r” first slowly, then rapidly. Suddenly, the signals had meaning in Helen’s mind. She knew that “water” meant the wonderful cool substance flowing over her hand.

    Quickly, she stooped and touched the earth and demanded its letter name and by nightfall she had learned 30 words.


    Liked by 6 people

    • Transformative indeed. The example of Helen Keller is spectacular. But no less spectacular is the ease with which children learn such a complex faculty as language. For which, pending the development of telepathy, we’ve not found any better means of communicating.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Interesting topic for a blog post, Curtis! Some comments as follows:

    In the main I agree with Stephen King: A writer should use his or her lifetime-acquired-and-practiced vocabulary and syntax when writing. Don’t strain over-hard to write either “down” or “up”. Writing in your own authentic voice helps give any piece you might produce a natural flowing rhythm and overall fluency while avoiding affectation, irregular prose rhythms and possible embarrassing mistakes. (“I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”)

    Having said that, I also sympathize and agree with William F. Buckley who retorted to someone criticizing his “pedantic and obstruse” word choices: “Madame, all I can aver is that these seemingly recondite and unfamiliar word choices and meanings are not unfamiliar to me.” (Once upon a time a reader was expected to inquire into the meaning of any word they ran across that was unfamiliar to them.)

    I, too, encounter that frustrating “what is the word needed here” experience when writing. Oddly enough, the sentence entire ofttimes comes to me sans that particular word and I write the sentence out leaving a blank space where the “correct” missing word should be. Invariably, upon rereading and revising (hours or even days later) the word I’d been searching for but unable to retrieve pops effortlessly to mind and I set it down in the gap left open in the hopeful expectancy that it would appear later. (Fictive writing practiced as a “faith-based” exercise? So it would seem.)

    As I age out, the aforementioned experience is becoming ever more common.

    I forget where I encountered this notion in my reading (see how quickly specifics fade?) but I recently ran across the assertion that the reason writing (whether fiction or nonfiction) is so intellectually taxing is that for every word that occurs to a writer at least a half-dozen more synonyms and/or close associates near-simultaneously jostle for expression. The writer, therefore, is continually choosing amongst these veritable thickets of words that arise in the mind in order to extract the most appropriate word for the character and/or narrative. At the same time, the writer is arranging these words in an order that feels most efficacious, pleasing and appropriate to the narrative-at-hand. This constant sifting and choosing amongst words, in tandem with the rigors of constructing and deploying an effective grammar, make writing—for most of us—one of the most challenging and intellectually taxing tasks a person might undertake. It certainly proves such for me. Compare the sloppiness (repetition, inappropriate and/or erroneous word choice, voiced verbal tics and non-sensical vocalization) of spoken speech as opposed to the written. However, this plethora of communicative misfires in voiced speech is oftentimes more than compensated for by two elements written speech cannot avail itself of: tone and gesture.

    Decades ago I used to regularly awaken in the mornings (after all-night writing sessions) from dreams of words. I mean that literally: I would wake up with recently acquired words and expressions on my tongue, words and expressions I had been using in the dream world to argue persuasively for one thing or another. Other times I would awaken from intoxicating academic (in both senses of the word) dreams in which I found myself being mentored in the niceties of rhetoric and the transfixing beauty of certain words and euphonious phrases by—variously—Socrates, Orson Welles, Isaac Asimov, James Mason and Gandalf. So umm . . . yeah . . . dreams are weird. Doesn’t happen anymore.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Perry Palin says:

      I don’t recall ever dreaming about words. I used to dream about girls. That’s over now. Well, mostly. Now I dream about cancer and trout fishing and bears and horses and honeybees, and they all appear in my stories.

      In finding the right word it’s often better to look past the two dollar words. The right nickel word in the right place is golden. In a short story I wrote “Glenna walked with me through the quiet living room and found my coat for me in the closet.” In its context the sentence says something about Glenna, something about the narrator, and something about the closet. It took a long time to settle on “found my coat for me” and I discarded many one and two dollar alternatives that would not have said the same thing.

      The right words will really fit. I mentioned in an earlier thread that my one grievance against an English professor editor was how he tried to make my male lower working class rural Midwestern teenager use the words of an urban middle class English professor. Ah, nope.

      Liked by 4 people

      • I like that example, Perry. I find similar examples happen to me often – ages spent working on a sentence which ends up too elaborate, and when revising I settle on something simpler which does the job much better.

        Liked by 3 people

    • A good summary of the writing experience, Carl, the jostling between words and the simultaneous formulation of grammar. I could have mentioned the frequency effect: the most frequent words are also those that come most easily to us. An asset when speaking but often a bane when writing. Avoiding the well-worn cliché in favour of a less common but more striking image requires an effort. Luckily, as you say, we also have the pop up effect, whereby it comes to us later when we’ve stopped searching for it. I don’t think that phenomenon has yet been fully explained.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” This really made me angry. It is such bullshit. I’m glad King changed his mind.
    I have RhymeZone on speed dial, and I’m always looking for synonyms. Just the right word. Sometimes it doesn’t exist. But often I say, “That’s it!”
    Then there are the times my crit group says, “You’ve used that word four times on this page.” So I have to find a different way of saying it. RhymeZone again.
    I have no idea how many unique words I use in my stories. How would I even find out, other than doing a physical count?

    Liked by 5 people

  4. I think that’s the former-English-teacher-and-sometime-editor-of-the-slush-pile Stephen King speaking, Mike. He probably saw one-too-many freshman comps/fiction subs from new writers that merrily misfired along wielding words that got near to, instead of clearly and precisely expressing, what the writer intended. Instead of (1) “the alien starship was comprised of a black metal both strong and resilient” the wince-inducer, having no feel for the subtleties and nuances of the language, perpetrates (2) “the incongruous interstellar torpedo was encompassed of a piceous timber both muscular and lissome.” The misused words of sentence #2 are all suggested synonyms for the properly used words found in sentence #1. Point Stephen King.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. I agree with Curtis, GD, and Mike about using a thesaurus, not to attempt leveling up or down, but to retrieve that elusive little bugger of a word you’ve known for most of your life, but simply cannot pick out of your brain. (Although I can usually tell you what letter it starts with.) True, as Carl says, sometimes it eventually presents itself unbidden, but I would rather hunt it down — for the satisfaction. (A “writer” would be a special kind of stupid to select a word without considering its connotations simply because it’s listed as a synonym.)

    As children, I think most of us learned we should reject broad, sweeping generalizations (as well as opinionated absolutes presented as facts) as inaccurate and unwise. Mr. King holds no sway with me. First, I don’t believe there are any human-designed rules that have no exceptions. Second, he’s the guy who said, “Never use adverbs.” (Oh, the hypocrisy!) Third, in my opinion, the man’s an over-rated hack of a writer.

    Ursula K. Le Guin cautioned against inserting jewel-like words into your writing in order to impress your reader. It pulls the reader right out of the story, which is not the goal of a skilled storyteller.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I feel no qualms agreeing that Ursula K. Le Guin was a far better writer than Stephen King. Her stories invite readers to understand themselves. “We read books to find out who we are.” King shares his fantasies of horror born of alcohol abuse and drug addiction.
      She crafted her stories. He, apparently, gets paid by the word.

      Liked by 3 people

    • @Sue: Your comment re: Stephen King: Whelp, you and S. T. Joshi are in complete agreement re: the literary worth of Mr. King’s writings. I think that opinion is unnecessarily harsh. If today S.K. appears over-praised, there was a time he was underappreciated. Have you read Cujo? Dolores Claiborne? These are novels in which he demonstrates a complete mastery of social-realist elements: the constrained economic circumstances, despair and simmering undercurrent of violence and repressed rage of the characters in these novels renders both plot and prose electric and compelling. Moreover, S.K. is a master of characterization and deft description; he demonstrates those skills well here.

      Now, to be sure he has his faults: He has written the occasional bloated door-stopper of a novel that says nothing and goes nowhere and whose ending disappoints.

      But a “hack”? No. I’m sorry, Sue: I can’t agree. Though I am loathe to cross swords with you, I feel honor-bound to defend S.K.’s honor and reputation here. (And Stephen: If you are reading this, please make out a five-figure check to this poverty-stricken scritch-scribbler in desperate need of funds. Mail it c/o: the expatriate American playboy and billionaire renaissance man who currently resides with his court and servants in a Corinthian-columned, sixty-room, ivy-covered mansion on a sprawling estate in the south of France: The Right-Honorable Grand Marquis Curtis B., at . . . .)

      Liked by 4 people

      • Defend away, Carl. I hope he sends you boatloads of cash.

        I suspect our differences of opinion regarding Mr. King’s writing have to do with our personal reading preferences and the reasons we have them. I think our expectations of writing worth our time differ. As with most subjective expressions, it may come down to how our experiences form our tastes.

        Liked by 3 people

        • LOL! re: “I hope he sends you boatloads of cash.” (If only, heh! He hardly needs me to advance/protect his career.)

          Criticize away! Any writer; any writing. My only point here (contrariness/contradiction/dissent always gently delivered, if at all possible, with humor) was to raise a quizzical eyebrow at the charge of “hack”.

          I don’t read hacks and hackwork. (Fool me once . . .)

          But we’ve moved on . . .

          PS. However . . . This is rather amusing! A little something for everyone here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/feb/05/stephenking-fiction

          PPS. J. K. Rowling (see link above) a “terrific writer”?! Uh . . . no. Just . . . no. Workmanlike, pedestrian prose–check. Not a hack; just no there, there–for me. (I do respect her intelligence, output, personality and accomplishment in getting pre-teens to read 800-page novels!) See? I don’t always just mindlessly echo the opinions of S.K.

          Liked by 3 people

  6. mimispeike says:

    I sometimes use a word that gets the job done but is not tasty enough (without being razzle-dazzle) or, more usually, precise enough to please me. I don’t track a replacement down, I wait for it to settle in my brain of its own accord. I head for a thesaurus most often when my piece is rhyme. I want a rhyme that surprises.

    Aside from my adult Sly adventure, I have a series (seven books so far) of glimpses into Sly’s childhood, written in verse, shorties with a loose storyline. They’ll be picture books, if I ever get around to them.

    I cover his familial relationships, his best friends–a frog and a hedgehog–and his visit with Queen Elizabeth, during which she sits him on her lap, combs fleas out of his fur and drowns them in a bowl of gin. The story (supposedly for kids) is not kid-cutesy. It’s more of my smart-mouth humor.

    I have a wide vocabulary and head to the thesaurus infrequently. But my rhyming dictionary is always within easy reach. I have an excellent one full of archaic terms that come in very handy for a tale set in the sixteenth century.

    Liked by 6 people

  7. victoracquista says:

    Thanks, Curtis, for another excellent post. And thanks to my fellow writers for sharing insights and information. At the moment, I am at a loss for words despite the fact that I am a logophile (but not quite a logomaniac).

    Liked by 3 people

  8. DocTom says:

    Interesting post, Curtis. Now all of you have pretty much said it all, so this is probably a bit redundant. There’s nothing wrong with hunting the thesaurus for a better word to use, if for no other reason than in some writing repetitive word use makes for a boring read. It can imply (or indicate) a lack of imagination or effort on the part of the writer (then again, the writer may just be a dullard). Sometimes there is just a word that is more evocative of the mood or environment than the one which instantly pops to mind.

    At the same time, if the writer is trying to “write literary” (or in the case of students in my technical writing course, “write scientific”) overuse of a thesaurus just comes off as pretentious drivel (as has been previously noted). Another problem is that some authors like to show off their extensive vocabulary, which in many cases just turns off a reader. China Miéville comes to mind. You have to have a dictionary next to you when you read his work (and it better be a British one too!). Some people find the use of rarely used words cool, I personally just find it pretentious when there is a perfectly good commonly used word or expression available. I also know a few folks who have just moved on to other authors because having to stop every few sentences to look up a word destroys the flow of the story. (BTW, I’ve read a number of his novels and have other problems with his works, but that’s for another time.)

    Last point. Relying on a thesaurus by itself is like trying to use a map app on your phone in a WiFi free zone (this has happened in the Adirondacks). I always told my students that the thesaurus and dictionary work as a tag team. Synonyms listed in a thesaurus are like your extended family — you are genetically very close to your brother or sister, but to a fourth cousin twice removed? Yeah, you found a neat word in the thesaurus, now look it up in the dictionary to see what it means — exactly.

    Liked by 5 people

    • victoracquista says:

      You elaborated upon this eloquently and with silvern persuasion. I got that handy dandy word ‘silvern’ from an online thesaurus just to illustrate your points. This exemplifies (demonstrates, depicts, elucidates, embodies, epitomizes, illuminates, illustrates, personifies) misuse of the thesaurus.


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