Apr 10

Gathering vocabulary before you start writing

Gathering vocabulary before you start writing


There are many ways in which you can start to write.

If you are doing writing exercises it is perhaps different to already having an idea for a story or a poem or article. Then you already have a focus. If you are looking for inspiration you might look for ideas on writersend.com. You might have old favourites, exercises that you have enjoyed and/or found stimulating or useful in the past. You might enjoy devising your own writing exercises

Here is a suggestion:

Time spent with a dictionary or a thesaurus is never wasted.

Choose a topic or a small selection of topics and start to jot down vocabulary that you might use if you were writing about that topic.

Use a thesaurus to look up the words you have chosen and choose a few that you might also use or even prefer to the ones you thought of first. If you enjoy using a dictionary or thesaurus to play around with words you might find yourself looking up some of the new words as well. Because the words listed will not all be interchangeable, you may find the more words you look at, the more ideas you get about expanding the topic or the character you are writing about.

You might want antonyms as well as synonyms so that you can begin to develop different viewpoints in what you are writing to give it depth and interest eg if you are saying why a popular and apparently likeable character is seen as strong, well liked, honest…  you might want to say how another character sees ‘her’ as wilful, ingratiating or too outspoken (possibly for good reason?).

If you are writing a poem about the beauty of nature or a love poem, you might want to give it contrast by pointing out some of the harsher or potentially dangerous aspects of nature or the sadness that comes from the absence or loss of love.

Before you even start to write in earnest, or if you are trying to unblock ideas within a piece, you might even find it worthwhile to draw a mind map. Choose an obvious and unambiguous word, for example ‘colourful’. Write your word in the middle of a page and add your synonyms around it drawing a line from each new word to the original word, ‘colourful’. Look at those first and highlight words that are positive. You might choose vivid, rich, or bright…. In a different colour highlight any that could actually be negative, perhaps gaudy, flashy, loud….

Now look up some antonyms and add those into the mix.

Choose one of the positive words from the synonyms. Put a ring around it and look up synonyms for that. Write them on the page and join them with a line to the chosen word. So you might have chosen ‘bright’ and find yourself adding deep, fresh, intense….


You can use mindmaps in many ways including exploring vocabulary:


Gleaming               crisp

                                                Deep                  fresh

           dull                                                                      Intense

   pale                                                             BRIGHT             flashy          faded

Hued                                                     gaudy

Florid                                                                                                  multicoloured


Kaleidoscopic                                                       prismatic

Loud                               showy

colourless                                                        rich

vivid                                                                                   drab

                                                                                  dingy             vapid

                                                           obscure                             flat

dusky      dreary


If you work out through only about three layers, choosing just some of the new words to expand on each time, you can soon end up with 50 or 60 words or more.

So, if your block was ‘What else can I say about this extravagantly flamboyant character?’ you might find you have a few ideas from the vocabulary in front of you.

If your writing exercise was:

‘Picture and describe a colourful shop window,’ you have a vast selection of words to start you thinking of how to describe what you ‘see’ in your imagined window. Is it a dress shop window? Is it a toyshop window? Off you go!


You could do all of this and end up choosing one really good word that encapsulates just what you wanted to say but the rest of the words are never wasted. Somewhere you may have come across a brand new word. Ideas, even if at subconscious level, about how to use some of the words you have looked at will have been skittering around in your head. Next time you want them, they will be there.


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