Practice Field

By Bill McBride

In business especially, there are too many 100-page books that could’ve been written in 75, and with far fewer buzzwords. If people don’t enjoy your writing, they are less likely to take away the knowledge that you toiled to transmit. Business writing needs to be held to a higher standard – for the reader’s sake. Grammar is critical, but I think vocabulary is the more pressing matter.  

I want to share my best process for building a larger vocabulary. I abhor sluggish learning. Learning can be a joy, and should be whenever possible. This process is designed to be pleasant, bearable, almost a pleasure (but let’s not get carried away). First, a game: 

The List

Each time I discover a word that I’m at all uncomfortable with, I add it to my Wunderlist account (task management app that serves just as well as a tool to build vocabulary) on my phone or laptop. Later, once a week or so, I use Google Dictionary to search each word, copy the definition provided, and paste it into Wunderlist. Every few hundred words I import the list from Wunderlist to Quizlet – the app providing the Match game above. There are about 1,000 words in Quizlet at the moment. Most were discovered in the fiction aisles: short stories (one H.P. Lovecraft story accounted for nearly 100 of them) and novels.

This is the first and by far most important step in the process: read. Read anything you enjoy. This includes but is not limited to graphic novels, dictionaries, pamphlets, and long-form news. The only requirement when choosing what you read is that you enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it, stop reading it. There is more text in the library I’m sitting in than one could get through in a lifetime. Life is too short not to enjoy what you read. Worse, reading something against your will may discourage you from reading something you would have enjoyed but didn’t for fear of another unpleasant reading experience. Read it because you like the size of the font, the cut of the paper, or the plot. All valid. If you don’t enjoy them, drop the most famous authors – maybe revisit them later (or don’t). 

Reading should be leisure, not labor. 

The first author I enjoyed was Edgar Allen Poe. Finding an author you like will only cost you time. Almost all classics are available for free nowadays. You have the library for physical copies (726,821 at my branch, allegedly) and Project Gutenberg for digital ones. Your library will have Kindle books for rent, too. The Philadelphia Library has nearly 120,000 eBooks available for checkout.

The point: just read, and make a quick note of words you’re not sure of. Doing so will accelerate your word learning process 100x.

Remember that you don’t have to stop and find the definition every time you come across an unfamiliar word. Some people will probably prefer that, but I find that it interrupts the flow of the reading. The word’s context in the story is usually enough to infer a basic understanding of it (unless it’s a Joyce story, in which case you’re on your own). Jot the word on Wunderlist and revisit it with Google later. H.P. Lovecraft:

Never should an unfamiliar word be passed over without elucidation; for with a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests in the realm of philology, and become more and more ready for graceful independent expression.”

If you aren’t comfortable using a word in an important interview, it goes on your list. 

Alternatives for Building Your List 

Some days you might just feel like hunting. On these days I’ll pickup an older book (The Odyssey, for example, or Gulliver’s Travels) and skim each page looking for words I’m uncomfortable with. You can easily amass a dozen new words in 5 minutes doing this, though you shouldn’t force yourself. It’s not very fun, and as soon as expanding your vocabulary feels like work, learning slows. The best book I found for word searching that I did not enjoy at all was I, Lucifer. Every five or six pages I’d have a full looseleaf full of words to plug into Wunderlist. The story was not for me, but the ROI from a minute’s skim was second to none.

A less effective method is to close your eyes and think of a word that you’re probably not comfortable using in conversation. I’ll do it right now: proletariat. I have an idea of what this word means, but I wouldn’t use it in a client’s article without double checking the meaning. 

Again, It’s most effective to just read what you enjoy and find words along the way. But if you feel like hunting, fire away.


You’ve amassed a small army of words and definitions. How do you commit them to memory? Here’s the shortlist of my personal trials:

  • Pay somebody $5 on Fiverr to read the full list, with definitions, aloud and record them. Listen to said recordings when you feel compelled to. Awful idea.
  • Make Word of the Day slips, about the size of a small receipt, and put one in my pocket each day before heading out the door.
  • Print the Wunderlist list. Study it with coffee each morning.
  • Choose 5 words per day and use them each in a sentence.
  • Try to slip a Word of the Day into text messages with friends.
  • Pull a shortlist of words from Wunderlist and use them in one long story. Read a twisted tale of the 21st century office, “The Inbox”, for a sample.
  • Plug the full list into Quizlet and test myself regularly using their Test, Match, Learn and Spell modes.
The Fiverr idea and the Quizlet idea were the worst because they felt most like homework. I found that when I downloaded Quizlet to my phone and practiced in idle time, I was put off by the sight of Wunderlist the next time I opened my laptop. When I deleted the app, that warm fuzzy feeling for Wunderlist returned. I only refer to Quizlet when my go-to strategies wear thin on me (once every couple of weeks).
The most effective of the bunch, for me, is to study the printed list during or shortly after morning coffee. Here’s exactly what I do at least a few days per week:

 Pay $2.50 for a double espresso because it’s a better day-starter than American coffee and I’ll fight you to the death if you disagree. Pour a glass of water. Find a seat, plug an earphone in. Scroll down the list of each printed page from Wunderlist, reading only either the Word or the Definition and trying to call its counterpart up from memory. If I can’t immediately (less than a second) remember its other half, I leave a mark next to it. Anything less than instant call-up deserves a mark. After each page I review the definitions I missed. 

After reviewing a number of pages, I’ll either put them away (if I’m straining to focus) or play around with one of them. Here are some ways you can “play around” on a separate, blank piece of paper:

  1. Write a word, and then beside it write a word that rhymes with it.
  2. Write a word, and then beside it a synonym (or antonym).
  3. Write a word, and then beside it a definition of it that rhymes with it. For example, Bibliopole: I-do-sell-books (I’m not Slim Shady, you get the point.)
  4. Write a shortlist of words you’re having a terrible time remembering. Admonish them silently. Refer back to them first the next day.

The point of this is to just spend more time with the words you’re struggling with / have fun with it. Actually, the point of it is just to avoid making it feel like work. I doubt it will ever be fun.

That’s it. That’s been my process so far. If you want to try it yourself, here are the tools you will need:

  1. Wunderlist app for iPhone, Macbooks, everything else.
  2. Google Search “Library Near Me”
  3. Pen and paper
Word Huntin'
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