I seem to have this problem where I know a lot of words but can't always seem to think them up when I write an article or a story. I know the meaning of most of these words, but when I write, some everyday phrase or idiom comes to my mind first or I write elaborate wordy sentences even though a succinct alternative is clearly there but I fail to think them up.

Anyway what would you people suggest me to incorporate advanced vocabulary into my writing so that I can use the words I know instead of just identifying them when I read?

Hopefully this is not off-topic. Sorry if it is.

  • 6
    I think this idea too small for an answer, but I suggest rereading those elaborate, wordy sentences the next day (or even the next week) to see if the word comes to mind. I've found that I need a sleep to free my mind from previous decisions. Also, a bad mood enhances this process, in my experience: it makes me more willing to criticize anybody, even my past self.
    – Jeutnarg
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 16:27

6 Answers 6


The Carnegie Hall method: Practice, practice, practice.

You know those Word-A-Day calendars? We joke about them, but they're not bad as a starting point. Each day you pick a word you want to start using more often (from the calendar, the dictionary, or list you create). Spend 10 minutes writing it in a bunch of sentences. Write a little story if you want; it's okay if it sounds ridiculous because you're using the word so much.

The next day, pick a new word to write sentences about. Then practice using yesterday's word in context in your speech as often as you can. The day after, you'll use Day 3's word in sentences and Day 2's word in speech.

The reasons for focusing on two words in two different media are

  1. sleep helps you learn and assimilate information better in the long term
  2. writing and speaking use slightly different parts of the brain
  3. you're forcing yourself to remember something from a previous day, so you're embedding the word into your longer-term memory

For a grand finale, try using all seven words from a week over the course of a weekend.

  • 3
    Thanks, this sounds interesting and doable.. Will definitely try doing this.
    – Rio1210
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 9:55

Don't. I know the use of fancy vocabulary may seem like a sign of sophisticated writing, but it's not. Every fancy word you use makes you prose less accessible to readers. The only reason to bring in a fancy word is if you cannot express the idea you need to get across using simple words. The hallmark of a good writer is that they can get complex ideas across using simple words. Practice that.

The paragraph above is perhaps not the best example of the advice it gives. Did I need to use the word "hallmark" for instance? Some readers may not have an immediate recognition of what "hallmark" means. (A hallmark is an imprint that a craftsman makes in precious metal to indicate who made the object. My wedding ring was custom made and has the hallmark of the goldsmith on the inside.)

I could have used simpler language for this. I could have said "sign" instead of "hallmark". Then my meaning might have been clearer to more readers. Or I could have simplified the sentence even more and said, "A good writer can get complex ideas across using simple words."

There is a saying that gets attributed to a number of different writers, "If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter". Our first drafts tend to be lengthy and verbose. They tend to use all sorts of complex and difficult words. If we have time for a second draft, we can and should make them shorter, and use simpler words.

If you read avidly, as you should if you want to be a writer, then your vocabulary will naturally grow over time. Your challenge, as a writer, is not to incorporate all that vocabulary into your writing, but to resist doing so as much as you can so as to make your writing as simple and easy to understand as possible.

Hmmm... I wonder if I could recast that first sentence to avoid the word "avidly"...

EDIT: Interesting finding: "Interestingly, using long words can result in readers missing shorter words that follow them, which can greatly affect text interpretation. http://centerforplainlanguage.org/what-is-readability/

  • 4
    Definitely championed by Orwell. His Politics and the English Language should be required reading for anyone who wants to write. (First draft of that sentence was "aspires to write". As a good Orwellian, I substituted to the simpler and more Anglo Saxon "wants".)
    – user16226
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 12:28
  • 12
    I disagree — not enough to DV, because I don't think your advice is harmful, but because sometimes les mots justes are complex. I do think that 98% of the time you should make clarity of writing your primary goal, but sometimes that means using gravid and not merely pregnant. Boiling down your writing to a fourth-grade level isn't necessarily an improvement. Adding sesquipedalian effluvia just because you happen to find an apropos niche can come off as meretricious, of course, but I wouldn't advise someone to use "fake news" if "specious" contains the necessary nuance. Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 13:01
  • 4
    And I really genuinely disagree that a smaller vocabulary is better. That is Orwellian, and not in a good way — doubleplusungood, one might even call it. Having a multiude of shaded words helps convey meaning. I keep a list of "look this up" words which I didn't know and had to research so that I can learn to use them as needed. When you narrow vocabulary, you remove some of the tools of expression. You make it harder to think about concepts when you don't have the words to describe them. Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 14:29
  • 7
    Your analysis of "hallmark" is interesting, but I would suggest that you chose it for impact. "Hallmark" has very strong connotations and a very narrow usage, so it actually ends up making your point more clear and stronger than "sign" would. Granted, your reader has to understand the word, but that's the case for every single word you use. So deciding what level of simplicity to go for is part of the art of understanding your audience.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 17:05
  • 4
    Mark, I think Steve Jobs pretty much built his entire Apple empire on "putting out something with no consideration for an existing audience and just hoping that one shows up." :) Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 18:16

I recommend three pillars: 1. Practice 2. Thesaurus 3. Drafting

  1. The more you write, the better your writing will become. This means finding the best word, and the best order to put the words in.

  2. Thesaurus. Personally I don't think a writer should ever use a thesaurus to find a word you don't already know - that's the sort of use that gives thesaurus use a bad name. However, in exactly the situation you describe above, I think a thesaurus is perfect. Type in the word you know isn't quite right, and browse until you find the one (which you already knew), that is.

  3. Drafting. I think it's best to first write any old words to get the gist and the feel of the story down, rather than getting bogged down on finding the right word, when you may end up cutting the entire scene anyway. Then every time you do a reiteration see if a better word springs to mind, or use the thesaurus, as mentioned above.

  • Thanks for some practical advice. I had people tell me the same about thesaurus. I think you make a good point about its sound use.
    – Rio1210
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 12:15
  • 8
    Agreed on the thesaurus point. I only look at the thesaurus when I am absolutely certain that a more suitable word exists, but I can't quite remember exactly what it is. 'Looking up fancier vocabulary' is NOT something that writers should do, because a thesaurus provides no context on how the word is used, and knowing an individual word is not useful unless you also know its context.
    – manyaceist
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 12:19
  • 2
    Please remove the "I think" bits. This is all very sound advice!
    – jpmc26
    Commented Apr 4, 2017 at 17:07
  • 1
    I agree with all of this. I might add that it's never a bad idea to double-check your understanding of a word with a dictionary; if I have to find a word through a thesaurus (always one I already think I know) I almost always look it up in a dictionary, too, just to make sure that my sense of plain meaning and especially connotations is correct. With online reference works and reference works built-in to most word processors, this is a very quick and easy process.
    – 1006a
    Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 16:09

I'm going to try the practice-practice-practice answer, but what has been helping me up until now is editing.

Go ahead and write the first draft with whatever words come to mind. Don't let searching for the right phrase interrupt your creative flow.

As you re-read your draft, take note of where

  • you stumble over verbose phrasing,
  • you haven't conveyed the precise meaning or mood you wanted (or needed),
  • you have distracting, unintentional repetition.

Those are the places where finding the right word or phrase pays off. That's when you head to the thesaurus, not to learn the right word, but to remind yourself of the choices available to you.

In particular, I find that verbs that aren't pulling their weight are the easiest to find and sharpen because the weak ones are propped up with -ly adverbs.

Plain language is fine, and you don't want to inject twenty-dollar words where ten-cent ones do the job. You certainly don't want to do that too often. Overusing sophisticated vocabulary can be off-putting.

Occasionally, however, a plain word doesn't cut it, and you need the mot juste.

I'm disappointed whenever I read a novel that doesn't send me to the dictionary once or twice.

  • 2
    "I'm disappointed whenever I read a novel that doesn't send me to the dictionary once or twice." A reader after my own heart! :) Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 1:02

I am surprised that no one has advised you to read. The use of a language is primarily based on exposure to it and mimicking. That's how everybody learns their native language and masters foreign ones.

Most answers have recommended you to practice writing, wich is sound advice. But for your practice to be effective, you need base material.

Pick a word and collect examples in dictionnaries, books or ask people to make a few sentences with it. If possible (although these are harder to find) don't limit yourself to written examples. You will soon see that the word comes to your mind more naturally.

  • 1
    While "reading" in general is good advice, how would you know if a given book contains the word(s) you're looking for so you can "collect examples" of it? Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 10:51
  • 1
    'I am surprised that no one has advised you to read.' @MarkBaker did. 'If you read avidly, as you should if you want to be a writer, then your vocabulary will naturally grow '
    – Spagirl
    Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 13:36

I face this issue a lot. I used to worry about misusing a word, but over time I've decided that if the original thought includes the word, then it probably deserves to be used.

Another test to use is: can I express this thought adequately without using the word?

In fiction writing, you can make excuses for sesquipedalianism by claiming that a character would want to use exotic words (and then if you don't use it properly, you can simply say, that was the character misusing the word, not me!).

Often I use a long word and later edit it to use a shorter word. On the other hand, sometimes long words can seem more terse -- also for non-English natives, sometimes longer Latin-based words are easier to understand than seemingly simply verbal phrases.

I wrote an article about building your vocabulary:

Don’t worry about using words incorrectly. It happens. I frequently discover that I have learned a word partially or even wrongly. Sure, don’t rush to use a $2 word after you discover it, but really, the public shame of misusing a word in conversation is vastly overstated. (I am much more cautious when I write though). When writing, if the word doesn’t fit snugly into the context you need it for, chances are that either you don’t need this word or don’t know it well enough to use it. (Yes, a simpler word is almost always better if it conveys what you want).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.