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Beyond the Thesaurus: Diction Discovery

September 20, 2011

Writers experience a lovely and palpable satisfaction when they unearth the utterly right word. Once dull and lazy prose can suddenly sparkle under precise attention to diction. The aesthetic, mood, and character deepen. The reader feels that sensation of being transported.

Which, in short, means it’s worth being a punctilious chooser-of-words.

As people, we all have our favorite expressions. And while we can arguably get away with this in day-to-day chitchat, overusing the same language is not so acceptable in writing. Readers notice it. They get bored. So we have to keep pushing our own limits–to expose and re-expose ourselves to the acme of the English language!

Below are a few of my personal favorite sources of word-spiration. Hopefully they’ll amuse your inner logophile, too.

  • A writer friend introduced me to a while back, and it’s remained one of my go-to sites. As a visual person, the word maps engage me in a way that the thesaurus just sometimes can’t. And while VisuWords is a great place to explore when you need an ordinary synonym, I find it’s most helpful when I need a network of words for establishing tone and mood.
  • Paul McFedries’ Word Spy is quirky, modern, and will almost definitely broaden your lexicon. Sign up for his word-of-the-day via e-mail at Don’t know what juvenoia or paperphilia mean? Now you will.
  • Whether re-reading excerpts from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or Eliot’s The Waste Land or listening to slam poets work up a verbal groove at a local coffeehouse, poetry is a rich word-lover’s resource. Even if I only subconsciously ingest new turns of phrase, they often emerge to surprising effect in my own writing (which, incidentally, is mostly prose).
  • Lastly, I say…play TABOO! Why? Because writing is essentially a solitary activity, and that makes it extra gratifying to tap into your word nerd in a fun, social setting. I always find that word-focused games stretch the language department of my brain, and they foster a creativity that comes in handy when I later sit down to write. In the case of TABOO, it encourages you to look at words through new lenses. Like, how might you describe a fanny pack? Try “derrière satchel” or “belt-pocket above booty.”
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