Writing craft

How’s Your Vocabulary?

Dave Fessenden, CAN board member at large
Dave Fessenden

Hi, Dave Fessenden here, with a suggestion for writers. Have you been developing your vocabulary lately?

Usually when I ask people that question, I get a mixed response. Most writers realize that a healthy vocabulary is helpful, but they worry that their writing is going to sound like a thesaurus, fraught with obscure, many-syllabled words. But that is not at all what I mean.

I mean that we need to learn the exact definitions of words, along with their connotations, so that we can be sure to use them precisely. Let me give you an example with two words which are synonyms for look: leer and ogle. What would you think if a man was leering at you? What would you think if a man was ogling you? In both cases, you probably would think he had sexual intentions.

However, the definitions are definitely different. Leer means “to look at someone in an evil or unpleasantly sexual way.” In other words, it may be sexual, but not necessarily, but it is always in an unpleasant way. Ogle, on the other hand, means “to look at (someone) with strong sexual attraction,” which means looking at someone sexually, and it may (or may not) be unwelcome. A second definition for ogle is “to look with strong interest or desire.” So you can say, “The hungry man ogled the banquet table,” and it might work. You cannot say, “The hungry man leered at the banquet table,” because it always means something evil or unpleasantly sexual.

Also note the other difference between leer and ogleleer requires the word “at,” but ogle does not, similar to the difference between look (at) and see. When you are writing poetry, the necessity for that extra word may cause problems with the rhyming scheme or cadence, so it can be an important distinction.

Do you see how being more precise in your knowledge of word definitions can be critical? That is why you should look up the definitions of words more often—including words you think you already know. I did that myself in this post. I looked up fraught (used in the second paragraph) and found that its precise definition (“filled with or destined to result in [something undesirable]”) did indeed fit the context in which I intended to use it. Life is good.

The Case of the Exploding Speakeasy by David E. Fessenden
The Case of the Exploding Speakeasy by David E. Fessenden

David E. Fessenden is a literary agent with WordWise Media Services and an independent publishing consultant with degrees in journalism and theology, and two decades of editorial management with Christian publishers. He has written six books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. His first novel, The Case of the Exploding Speakeasy, was published in the fall of 2013. His blog on writing is