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Career tip: My Keyboard, My dictionary, and My Thesaurus March 28, 2010

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.
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People ask me about some tips on being a better communicator. They are looking for ways to more easily put their ideas into words, especially written words. Besides being organized in your thoughts and having an idea what you want to say, the expressing of those ideas is the next important step. Most people seldom work on one of the key tools, which is to have a vocabulary broad enough to give you the words you really need. Most people only use a rather small number of words; estimates say a thousand or two.

Most scientists and other highly-educated people know many more words than that. They just seldom use the thousands of others. One of my keys in communicating is using the right words, including those few thousand that are known but halfway forgotten. My writing jogs the memory without a conscious effort. My ideas get expressed and the readers are seldom wise to my use of that expanded vocabulary. I choose words that are not rare and especially not ones that have to be looked up in a dictionary (more on that in a bit).

The writer Jack London liked to pepper his stories with these obscure words. It showed his high vocabulary. But his showing off, in being a self-taught man, put many readers off. The words were too rare. It is much better to use known and recognizable words that just happen to be less common.

I use my dictionary, though, to check on spellings (spell-check programs are stupidly made, so that a typo or misspelling may get by because it is another acceptable word). If I am in a jam or need inspiration in another direction, I turn to my thesaurus for alternatives. Both books are indispensible to writing.

How do I get and maintain an expanded vocabulary? I started the habit in high school, goaded by a couple of English teachers, of looking up words that were not clearly familiar. I make an effort to remember each if it seems a potentially-useful word. I use these and the other rarer words often in conversations, as well as in writings. I want them to be handy tools of expression. Analogously, I also note such words when I hear someone speaking – although then it is sometimes a guess at the correct spelling. That extra effort, I have found, helps me remember such words more readily.

Using the extra, expanded vocabulary of words takes some effort in using. You have to use context to intimate the meaning, to help jog the readers’ memories. You have to do this sparingly, only a few words here and there. You have to know when a word is too obscure. Sesquipedalians, extra-long words, in themselves are only showing off and distract from your message or story.

But once you gain several of these words, you will find your ability to describe your ideas to be easier.

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