• Anqi Teng

Have a weak vocabulary? 5 ways to write better without learning a lot of difficult words.

A common struggle for students is to know how to improve their vocabulary for writing. In particular, it’s difficult to know what type of vocabulary to use for writing in the first place.

What language is expected in essay writing? What words are helpful for creative writing? Where do I even start?

I have good news for you. As is the case with all knowledge acquisition, learning vocabulary is best done smarter, not harder.

Here are 5 ways to help you squeeze the highest quality writing out of your vocabulary, even if you don’t know incredibly difficult words!


1. Learn your verbs

Verbs give your other words more mileage. Knowing more verbs allows you to combine ideas together in fresh relationships. On top of this, English verbs are very rich in nuances – this means that we have different verbs for very specific actions. Unlike languages like Japanese, where adverbs are needed to give information to a limited number of verbs, English incorporates a lot of meaning within each verb itself.

That’s why, if you have limited time to spend on learning new words, or if learning new vocabulary is not your forte, dedicate yourself to learning verbs. For high school essay writing, establishing an effective arsenal of analysis verbs is the key to pushing your essay quality to the next level.

We have linked 2 great lists of verbs below, both of which will help you write essays more accurately and precisely:

2. Learn how to use function words

When learning new words, we tend to focus on exciting and fancy ones. However the real heavy lifters of English language are function words – words which do not have any meaning, but indicate the relationship between ideas. If a sentence is a beautiful home, then function words are the foundations of the home.

Function words include:

· Determiners (a, the, some)

· Conjunctions (and, but, yet, for)

· Auxiliary verbs (be, have, did)

· Modals (could, would, shall)

To learn more about function words, check out the following link: https://www.thoughtco.com/function-word-grammar-1690876

Many students believe they have a strong grasp on function words, however when the content of a piece of writing becomes more complex, it is often in the ineffective use of function words that markers find the first signs of weak writing.

3. Learn definitions precisely

I never let my students get away with ‘good enough’ definitions.

‘Good enough’ definitions happen when we start equating a word's synonyms to its meaning.

For example, a ‘good enough’ definition for ‘utilise’ is ‘to use’. However, learning vocabulary like this does not help us choose between ‘utilise’ and ‘use’ in a piece of writing. The precise definition of ‘utilise’ is to use something beyond what it was intended for. For example, I might use chicken to make chicken soup, but I can utilise the chicken bones as compost.

The issue with thinking that it’s ‘good enough’ to equate ‘utilise’ with ‘use’ is that we start believing ‘utilise’ is simply a “smarter” version of ‘use’. We then start to inject this word everywhere in our essays and creatives. The end result? Pretentious and clunky writing.

So how do we start learning vocabulary more precisely?

Focus on finding the difference between synonyms and what extra meaning sets them apart from each other.

For example:

  • frustrated = angry + impotence

  • persistent = stubborn in the face of opposition

  • nostalgia = longing + sadness

4. Write concisely

Superfluous and over the top language exposes weaknesses in our writing. When we stretch sentences out over multiple coordinate and subordinate clauses, our inability to maintain clarity becomes glaringly obvious.

You might feel the pressure to write with long complicated sentences because all the classic books you were taught to learn writing from tend to have these torturously long sentences stuffed with difficult vocabulary. However, let me be the one to tell you that it’s better to write short to medium length sentences with no more than one conjunction per sentence.

The reason is simple. Long sentences are filled with fluff. Fluff means phrases which sound fancy but add no meaning. If you have a weaker vocabulary, you can only write low quality fluff. But here’s the hack.

If you don’t write fluff, you can’t write bad fluff. Your meaning will be so dense that the reader won’t notice that you’re not using words like ‘cogent’ and ‘abhorrent’.

Let’s have a look at this idea in action:

Smart fluffy sentence: It becomes apparent then, that it is paramount for us to consider the dire consequences of such irresponsible action.

Basic fluffy sentence: It is clear then that the important thing for people to do is to think about what will happen after we do things that might be bad.

Concise sentence: It is important to consider the consequence of bad actions.

By the way, professional writers tend to stay away from fluffy sentences in general. Fluffy sentences tend to sound pretentious, not smart.

5. Learn pragmatically

Do you have an English essay coming up for Macbeth? Spend time researching terms specific to Shakespeare. You don’t need to know every difficult word under the Sun to do well, you just need to know ‘soliloquy’, ‘couplets’ and ‘primogeniture’.

Dedicate the first half of your writing time to researching the topic you’re writing about and become an expert. Learn the jargon of the topic inside and out. Everything you need is at your fingertips on the internet. A trick I loved using for high school and university was to read essays written by professionals in the field so I could learn their language. I carefully wrote down each unknown word down on a sheet of paper and learned them accurately. This study trick helped me elevate my writing without requiring high time investment.

If you repeat this for all your writing assignments, you might just pick up some new vocabulary words to keep with you for the long haul.


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- Anqi

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