But it's not enough to just know the right word – you also need to remember it when it's time to use it. This is harder than it seems. Keeping your vocabulary ready and agile takes practice. It's easy to slip into patterns, using dull, pallid words and monotonous sentence structures, overlooking colorful synonyms and dramatic grammatical fireworks.
Make it a habit when you're reading to pay attention to the author's choice and arrangement of words. Words do not just leap onto the screen of their own accord - someone had to put them there: those particular words, in that particular order.
For example, when I was reading through Paul Mariani's Thirty Days, I came upon a sentence that contained the word “winced.” I stopped; something sounded wrong. I re-read the sentence, thought about it, and realized that he should have used “flinched” instead. It fit with the flow better and made the impact of the thought that much stronger. But that's the fun of writing. When you're at the keyboard, you get to write it your way.
When you come across a word you don't know, in reading or in conversation, ask what it means or look it up. Don't be one of those people who smile and nod as if they were the second coming of Noah Webster. Learning, like getting born, is embarrassing. But it is the beginning of a whole new world.
Precision – that striking quality that marks all great writing - is not accidental. It is a skill developed painstakingly by writers who care. Open any book and you will find “intelligent design” at work. (Well, most books. I can think of a few exceptions.)
The highest aspiration for a writer is to be known as someone who “writes what he means,” because a writer's basic goal is not necessarily to convince the reader, but simply to be understood. Most of the time, that's hard enough. To this end, I can think of no better advice than this from Susan Sontang: “Love words. Agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”
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