Writing

How I Developed My Written Vocabulary

When I glance over my blog posts and other types of content I’ve written during the past six years, I can’t help but marvel at how much my vocabulary has improved with time. Like every writer, I once struggled to write coherently. And it was frustrating because each time I had an idea I badly wanted to write about, I always struggled to find the right words to express the idea.

Time and again, I’ve had several people — writers and bloggers who want to improve the quality of their writing — ask me how I managed to develop my vocabulary to the level it’s at today. And so I’ve decided to share the secrets of my vocabulary success in this blog post.

This may sound too good to be true, but if you diligently employ these effective methods, you’ll develop your vocabulary and learn to write with clarity in no time.

Seven Things I Did to Improve My Vocabulary

1. I read extensively and avidly.

I used to read novels purely for the purpose of entertainment. But when I discovered other benefits of reading extensively and regularly, one of which was that it developed my vocabulary, I adopted a different approach to reading.

First, I broadened my scope of content and started reading more than just novels: I began to read interesting nonfiction content (newspaper articles, movie and book reviews, blog posts, essays, etc) under a wide range of genres. And I didn’t just read these forms of content; I studied them, too. I observed how each sentence was constructed, noted the writer’s tone, and studied how that tone affected their choice of words.

I also formed the habit of annotating whenever I was reading and highlighting words that I wasn’t yet familiar with. And as I consistently introduced myself to new words and diverse writing styles, my vocabulary improved significantly with time.

2. I studied the dictionary intensively.

The dictionary is an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to increase their vocabulary, and it has been a part of my arsenal for as long as I can remember. With a detailed dictionary, you can easily learn the correct spellings and pronunciations of various words. You can also use it to learn the alternate meanings and correct usage of words that you don’t fully understand.

My favourite dictionary for handy use is Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. I used (and still use) this dictionary to learn more about collocations, connotations, idioms, phrasal verbs, figures and parts of speech, and other grammatical nuances.

The dictionary is also useful for finding words that are nearest in meaning to the quality, state of being, or manner of action that you want to describe. For example, did you know that while ‘chubby’, ‘plump’, ‘obese’ and ‘overweight’ are synonyms of ‘fat’, they can’t always be used interchangeably?

3. I increased my active vocabulary.

Your passive vocabulary comprises words that you understand but don’t use when speaking or writing. Conversely, your active vocabulary comprises words that you understand and use in your everyday speech and writing.

Naturally, our passive vocabulary is much larger than our active one. So when people say they want to increase their vocabulary, what they mean is that they want to transfer the words in their passive vocabulary to their active vocabulary while consistently adding new words to their passive vocabulary.

The truth is, the more new words you come across, the larger your passive vocabulary will grow. But before you can increase your active vocabulary, you must first practise writing and speaking using the words in your passive vocabulary.

To achieve this, I incorporated newly learnt words in my conversations and writing. And since I hardly forgot about anything whenever I discussed it with people, anytime I learnt a new word, I always made sure to discuss its usage with other people.

4. I practised visual vocabulary building.

One advantage of having a wide vocabulary is that it rids your writing of those excess words that aren’t needed to express an idea. Simply put, it rids your writing of verbiage. (And, in case you didn’t notice, my use of ‘verbiage’ perfectly illustrates this point).

Verbiage is the disease of writing, and the only way to overcome it is by learning to write using words with more precise meanings. Fortunately for me, my Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary features a “Visual Vocabulary Builder” section that lists the specific names of various activities, objects, parts of objects, etc.; thereby teaching me to write with more precision.

So now I call it a corkscrew, not that instrument that is used to open wine bottles. And I also know the difference between a stiletto, a slingback and a wedge shoe, no thanks to my mum.

The next time you find yourself stuck in a traffic jam, taking a stroll in the park or waiting in line at the ATM, try to name every object you can find around you as I always do. And if you see an object whose name you don’t know or remember, simply take a picture of it and search the Internet for its specific name. This will ultimately increase your vocabulary and rid your writing of verbiage.

5. I freewrote every day.

Another thing I did to improve my written vocabulary was to freewrite in my journal every day. Freewriting simply means writing continuously without paying attention to spelling, grammar or topic.

And it doesn’t matter if your target is a set period of time (such as ‘write for thirty minutes every day’), a set number of words (such as ‘write 500 words every day’), or a combination of both (such as ‘write 500 words in thirty minutes every day’). What matters is that you practise freewriting regularly and consistently using those words that are in your passive vocabulary.

6. I took vocabulary tests frequently.

The vocabulary tests I took served more as a way for me to test my vocabulary than as a way for me to develop it. They were how I measured my progress over time to determine whether or not my strategies were working effectively. And, thankfully, they were working.

If you’re looking for a fun way to enhance or grade your vocabulary, then Merriam-Webster is a great place to start. This dictionary app features two interesting word games that are useful for vocabulary development.

The first game, How Strong Is Your Vocabulary, tests your knowledge of words and their synonyms. The second game, however, is a visual vocabulary builder which tests you on how well you know the specific names of various objects. These word games, coupled with several English proficiency tests I took regularly, improved my vocabulary beyond measure.

7. I watched TV with keen attention.

The TV programmes you frequently watch will largely influence the way you speak. And since people usually write the way they normally speak, your favourite TV programmes will either make or break your written vocabulary.

I first realized this when I newly started watching Nickelodeon. Before then, my written vocabulary was sprinkled with many Nigerian slang words which I had no idea was improper English. Fortunately for me, though, watching Nickelodeon helped polish my oral vocabulary, which in turn enhanced my written vocabulary.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you can improve your vocabulary solely by watching Nickelodeon (if only it were that easy). All I’m saying is that watching TV, especially sitcoms and even the news, can go a long way in improving your vocabulary. I recommend sitcoms because their conversations are usually natural, witty and realistic, which makes them so easy to learn from.

The best way to improve your vocabulary using TV programmes is to study characters who speak eloquently and try to emulate the way they speak. You’ll learn much faster when you memorise your characters’ lines and practise talking like them. And what’s more, you’ll increase your passive vocabulary and become more adept at using the new words and phrases you’ll definitely learn.

Final Words

There are several ways other than the ones listed here to expand your written vocabulary. And while some of these methods might work effectively for you, others might not work just as well. In the end, simply do what works for you.

If you try your hand at a learning technique for a while and it doesn’t improve your vocabulary, don’t hesitate to try out another technique. But when you finally find the techniques that work effectively for you, make an effort to practise them regularly, and you’ll clear the hurdle of incoherent writing before long.


If you enjoyed reading this blog post, you may be interested in some of my other blog posts, like:


So what are your tips for increasing one’s written vocabulary? And what techniques did you use to increase your own? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!

30 thoughts on “How I Developed My Written Vocabulary”

  1. I was so glad to see a new post of yours. Well done!
    What do I think of this post? You’ve gotten REALLY good at what you do. Your posts are easy to read (with your subtitles in bold, pictures, lists, explanations, etc.), interesting, and so well written. Like you’ve said – you’re coherent and you do not use too many words to express what you mean.
    This post shows how dedicated you were/are to this.
    For me, reading does the biggest difference. Highlighting words and then finding them in the dictionary works wonders. However, as you said, you have to follow through. If you never use that word ever again, you will forget it.Or if not, it will just be a passive word that you know.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh, thank you so much for the kind words! Your comment is the morale boost I need to push me to edit some of my oldest blog posts that now look like crap in my eyes.

      I’m so glad that William Zinsser’s book “On Writing Well” had the effect people said it would definitely have on my writing. It was what I spent the majority of my break reading.

      If I had to choose between the seven methods in this post which one was the most effective of all, it would definitely be reading. And I can testify to the wonders reading books and the dictionary can do to one’s vocabulary. It’s evident in yours, even. I’ve always envied you because of the way you concisely use words to convey your thoughts and ideas.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Truly, I know the feeling. I also don’t feel excited to edit my old blog posts, especially because most of them are longer than 1,500 words.

          In the end, I think I’ll just edit one old blog post every weekend, since I’m usually less busy during the weekend. At least this goal seems more feasible than the original one (edit five blog posts every week).

          Liked by 1 person

            1. That’s so true. It would be foolish of me to let the task of correcting old posts interfere with the task of updating my blog. Perhaps the best approach isn’t to spend too much time trying to correct my past mistakes, but to learn from them and apply the knowledge to newer blog posts instead.

              Liked by 2 people

  2. I love your tips, Obinna. I like that you distinguished active vocabulary vs. passive vocabulary–I never thought about that before. I also want to play some of those Merriam-Webster games. Reading a lot is sooo important to developing a good vocabulary, as well as listening to articulate people, such as through podcasts or YouTube videos. You are one of the only non-native English speakers whose writing/grammar is so flawless that I wouldn’t know you weren’t American if I didn’t already know you were Nigerian. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much, Lily, for reading and for the kind words. Your last sentence has me grinning here like The Cheshire Cat from “Alice in Wonderland”. I feel so fulfilled. Thanks again. ❤️

      Say, could you please recommend some good podcasts that you think would be helpful for vocabulary development? I learn a lot with YouTube videos, but I think it’s high time I tried something new.

      Like

  3. Interesting. “… when people say they want to increase their vocabulary, what they mean is that they want to transfer the words in their passive vocabulary to their active vocabulary while consistently adding new words to their passive vocabulary.” I’ve never heard it put quite this way, but I guess that’s what I’ve been doing. Lately I have found myself using words I’ve never used but heard before (I don’t know where), looking them up to make sure I’m using them correctly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I guess this proves a theory a friend of mine suggested the other day. She believes that people learn subconsciously as fast as they do consciously, and your experience seems to agree with this idea.

      You may not have been actively trying to increase your vocabulary, but, perhaps, your frequent exposure to write-ups featuring words already in your passive vocabulary has finally added those words to your active vocabulary. It’s amazing, really!

      I hate that I sound like the nerd people say I am.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you kindly for reading, Yetunde.

      Other than Merriam-Webster, I can’t think of another app that can help you improve your visual vocabulary. But I’ve come across several websites that organise visual vocabulary tests every now and then, though you might find some of these tests too basic for someone who has average command of English language.

      If you do find them to be too basic for you, you can try looking up word lists on various topics instead —subjects like technology, agriculture, home improvement, education, etc. You can try studying one topic at a time.

      Learning words associated with different subjects (and searching for images of them, if they’re objects) is another effective option worth considering.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. You could try the ‘Elevate‘ app. I use that on a daily basis to keep my brain exercised. Note: there is a free version of this, but you need to hit the ‘X’ on the box that asks you for your credit card details to get to it. They’re a bit crafty!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aha! You’re the second person I know who’s recommending the Elevate app. I complained to a friend yesterday about running out of ways to flex my brain muscles, and he asked if I’ve tried out the Elevate app.

        If you both think so highly of the app, I’m sure it’s as good as people say it is.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I do, too! Reading, for me, is the most entertaining way to learn. And it’s quite impossible to exhaust books to read, so that’s another win.

      Thank you so very much for stopping by, Kayla. It’s always a pleasure interacting with you.

      Liked by 1 person

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