Writers need vocabulary exercises as much as athletes need cardio. They keep you at the top of your game and allow you to write at your best. And of course, we all know that annoying feeling when you can’t think of a word… It’s not only irritating, but it also throws you off your game, ruins your flow and can block new ideas from popping up.
When you think about it, vocabulary acquisition in the brain is a real black box. Just remember that you somehow went from ma-ma and da-da to about 25,000 words (on average) that you know right now as an adult! How the hell did that happen?
While acquisition of new words is something you cannot force easily (especially at an adult age), you can easily resurface some of the words that you don’t use as much, but you have as part of your subconscious word arsenal.
To help you build your vocabulary and expand the possibilities of expressing ideas and thoughts in your writing, here are some fun vocabulary activities that you can start doing right now:
1. Synonym Boards
When you think about it, a great portion of human language is based on synonyms. Sure, we have hundreds of thousands of words, but if you categorize them, you can notice that there are significantly less base terms.
(Fun fact: Some linguists consider that synonyms are not actually a real thing. If we take the language economy principle, it supports the fact that language would eliminate those words that actually mean the same thing.)
So, how can you use synonym boards to enrich your portfolio of words that you use most often and make your texts more diverse?
A well-known example is the writing tip that you should always avoid the formula very + adjective and substitute it with a single adjective:
Synonym Board Exercise:
To start using synonym boards as a vocabulary building exercise, you can think of a word that you use very often (or should we say, frequently) in your writing.
Classic examples are good, bad, fast, now, also, etc. (By the way, check out this list of the most common words in the English language).
A nifty thing that you can do is to upload one of your recent texts into an online tool that will show you which words you’re using most often. Understandably, you will have a lot of a’s, the’s and and’s, but pay attention to nouns, adjectives and phrases that you find yourself repeating too often.
For example, you might find that you’re using the phrase “for example” multiple times in a relatively short texts.
To start your synonym board, write “for example” in the middle, draw a circle around it and then brainstorm all synonyms for this phrase that come to your mind. At this phase, don’t google for these synonyms.
After you’re done, you can research online for more synonyms of the word or a phrase and expand your synonym board.
After you done, you can have a glance at your synonym board every time you feel like you’re overusing a word or a phrase.
2. Compose a Book Word List
Naturally, books are a great source of fresh, juicy words. After reading for some time, you might get the feeling that you would write more easily yourself. This is actually a fact. While reading, we subconsciously absorb all those bits of text.
The problem is that some words and phrases get more engraved into your brain than others. The secret is: use. Have you ever come across a cool word and decide to start using it more, only to see it become a part of your basic vocabulary after a short while?
While you’re reading, keep a notebook nearby. However, instead of marking down those words that you don’t fully understand (which is also a nifty technique of learning vocabulary in a foreign language), jot down all those that you wouldn’t think of instantly yourself.
For example, daunting is a pretty frequent, everyday word, but maybe you never used it once in your writing.
After you are done, refer back to your notes and re-read all your fave words one more time. Among those, write down those that you want to include in your active vocabulary again. You will be surprised by how many will actually stick.
3. Use Online Tools and Games
Once again, the Internet proves to be a pretty cool place where you can find just about anything. Given that there are many English learners around the world using online resources, you will easily find a bunch of vocabulary games and tools with a quick search.
Here are some of our top picks:
Just like the name says, EVE is an extensive database of versatile English vocabulary exercises. On this website, you’ll find more than 800 vocabulary exercises that you can access anytime, anywhere.
Cambridge English lessons are a great language source not only for non-natives, but for those who want to expand their vocabulary and language knowledge. On this link, you will find 83 vocabulary games and puzzles.
If you’re more of a game person (and who isn’t), one of the most amusing vocabulary games that you can try is Knoword. Next to vocab, it will also require snappy thinking and fast typing, all skills that are necessary to be a fast writer.
4. Grab a Dictionary
Now, in the previous exercise it was all about fun and games, so let’s get back to something more nerdy. Looking for new words? Well, you know exactly where to find them!
According to urban mythology, Eminem actually read the dictionary cover to cover multiple times as a kid to find new words to include in his raps!
Binging a dictionary can actually be much more fun than it sounds, and you’ll quickly witness it if you start.
It’s also advisable that you use a “real” paper dictionary because research suggests that information sinks in better if we read from paper than from our screen.