Psychology of writing: word accessibility

You can pick out a skilled painter or draftsman because they keep their eyes on the canvas or paper without having to constantly check every line they draw by comparing it to the model or original image, or having to look up, again and again, pictures of what they have to draw on google images. They trust their instincts and skill, and their lines are precise, and they have developed the necessary muscle memory that allows them to be skillful artists.

All the arts have that, a combination of skill, knowledge, and automatism that baffles the uninitiated. It’s mostly years of experience and practice. Well, I said all the arts, except writing apparently. There doesn’t seem to be a writing equivalent for that process of learning the fundamentals that other arts have, like painting has color, tone, and values, while draftsmanship is mostly line, shadow, and perspective.

It’s pretty common for artists, whether musicians or painters, to invest a few hours a day just to practice the fundamentals. Not writers. There are no “writing exercises”. Ok, you can find some described as such online, but they are pretty bad or not related to what I’m looking for here. There doesn’t seem to be a writing equivalent for sketching, doodling, improvising, and so forth.

That could be because writing is an inherently different medium. Sure, but I’m not convinced. I suspect it’s because writers are full of themselves and many still like to think of their art in that romantic way as “inspired artists.” So, is there something like “the fundamentals of writing” that you could practice? I think there is.

First, you need to forget about most of the exercises you see online. Forget about plot, creating stories from pictures, or whatever — that’s fine, but I won’t talk about that here. Here is about the kernel of writing: words. And the equivalent to the easiness of a painter who draws a perfect circle without even looking would most likely be word accessibility, something about which I wrote some time ago. If you need ten attempts to draw a circle, you obviously still need to practice; for the same reason, if you need to check up the thesaurus ten times before deciding which word to use next in a sentence, you still need to practice (although, for some people, you could also stop fussing over petty details so much, which also helps.)

I mentioned in that post that there’s a massive difference, in psychological terms, between reading and writing, and that people who are expert readers (as much as one can be an expert at that) don’t necessarily make expert writers. This difference can be found at the core of the studies that try to measure the vocabulary size of the average person. Now, I’m going to repeat some of the points I made here, so skip them if you already know them.

If you look up vocabulary size, you’ll find widely different results. A number that is usually mentioned is something like 20,000+ words for a native speaker, although some give a wider range, from 20,000 to 40,000 words. Now, there are two problems here. First is what exactly a word is, which may seem simple but not so much. Are ready and readily two words, or one? If you pick a word root and all its variations, the English language has potentially millions of words, which is why the best studies focus on families of words. So, a lexeme and all its variations are just one word. If you use that methodology, I can assure you that almost nobody knows 40,000 words, and few reach 20,000.

The second issue is that these studies are basically multiple choice test, because there are easy to process and analyze later. So they measure if you recognize the word, and in a few cases, you probably can just guess what it means. With those two caveats in mind, the average vocabulary might be something like 14,000 – 18,000 words, and that’s probably inflated. But, really, it doesn’t even matter what the number is because that’s just the size of the vocabulary you recognize, not the one you actually use. Just because you recognize (or can deduce their meaning from the context) words like equestrian, dowel, cyclopean, distal, abscissa, or bulkhead, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use them when you really need them. The former skill is your available vocabulary, the second is accessible vocabulary. As a writer, you’ll need the second.

Accessibility is clearly a fraction of availability. Theoretically, I guess there could be someone with a 1:1 relation, someone who can recall every word he recognizes, but that doesn’t really exist. I have looked it up, but I have been unable to find studies about this. For some reason, perhaps I read it a long time ago or most likely I just dreamt it, I have the numbers 6:1 in my head, which means that for every six available words in your memory, we actually only use/recall one. If that’s true, that would put the real, effective vocabulary of the average person uses around 3,000 words. That’s actually below what you need to read a decent novel, which explains why most people can read one story, but writing it, even when they have the idea and the plot, is painful.

So here it is where I believe the fundamentals of writing lie. You probably don’t need to blow up the numbers of words you recognize, that may be quite high already, you need to grab those words that escape from your tongue/fingers when you want to use them and drag them to the forefront of your brain and memory. An easy example: Give me 13 words (mostly adjectives) to describe “big things” (big included) Give yourself a minute.

How many did you get? I hope at least more than one.

This is my list: big, large, great, enormous, giant, mammoth, cyclopean, colossal, monumental, gargantuan, titanic, immense, immeasurable and…. I’ll add Brobdingnagian for fun. And I now realize the ultra-common huge is not in the list… figures.

Anyway, if you look at those words, you’ll likely recognize most of them, if not all, so it’s not like they are unknown, exotic words — most of them anyway. But if you are forced to recall them, which is what you have to do when writing, you might stumble, finding yourself at a loss for words, literally. The words are available, but not easily accessible. And it’s my theory that a good chunk of what is called “writer’s block” and other writing anxieties are just that, a dread arising from the constant feeling of having the word at the tip of the tongue but being unable to actually recall it.

A reverse example: glance, gleam, glimmer, glint, glisten, glitter, shimmer, and sparkle. If you saw any of those in a text, you’d know what they mean, something about uh…. light bouncing off something or being emitted… or something. And that’s really all you need for reading purposes. But would you be able to recall those eight words if you had to write them, or if someone gave you their definitions? I doubt it. Besides, they don’t even mean the same thing. You can say (in a totally-not-gay way, of course) to some buffed-up dude in the gym that his muscles glisten but I wouldn’t recommend telling him that they glitter… or sparkle.

Now, here’s the part where I disappoint you. Explaining the problem seems quite straightforward, even proposing a solution is simple. Actually fixing it, not so much. It requires effort and daily practice. Those two lists of words, about big things and light reflections? I memorized them. There’s no shortcut or way to bypass it.

For a long time, every day, I have been memorizing and studying lists of words, reverse definitions, fill-in-the-gap sentences, and all variations of vocabulary exercises I could imagine (I use flashcards, by the way.) I do that every day, like other artists may do their daily exercises or routines, and I believe it has paid off. Not necessarily because now I know many new words; some I do, true, but I’ll probably never use them anyway. The point is that they are there if I need them and that I know where they are and, more importantly, where they stand. I may never describe something as “cyclopean,” but I know the other 13-14 words circling nearby, around that cluster of meaning.

So, if you find yourself, whether writing, speaking, or whatever (what I described here is a general skill, not only useful for writers) constantly at a loss for words, do a bit of introspection and figure out if the reason may be, quite simply, that your vocabulary, the accessible part of it, is quite narrow. Do you even dominate the specific language of the genre you write in, so much that you can recall its words at any moment and at will? I mean, you wouldn’t write maritime or sailing stories without knowing the difference between starboard, freeboard, prow, or bow, right? It’s not that you have to know they exist, or to get the gist of their meaning from the context; no, you have to know them intimately, so much that you shouldn’t need to be constantly checking the dictionary to make sure. Otherwise, your writing will be slow, cumbersome, and will become an anxiety-riddled exercise in masochism*.

And this doesn’t necessarily apply to specific or uncommon words but even to the simplest things. If my work and that of other people are anything to go by, a lot of us seem to have trouble with the simplest things, like expressing spatial relationships, how to tell when characters leave a place or move around a building (or how that building is,) or to describe someone’s clothes when they are more complex than a shirt and jeans.

This is a very long subject, but I believe I have explained the basics of it well enough. I could probably make hundreds of posts out of it, but I guess you’ll be able to use your imagination and creativity to fill in the gaps or to see how it applies to you. If you want more examples or would like me to give you more detailed instructions or how I do my vocabulary routine, leave a comment.



10 thoughts on “Psychology of writing: word accessibility

  1. Mary

    Eh, one shouldn’t try to run before learning to walk.

    The thesaurus is a very useful tool for the first step, which is remembering not to use the simplest word that comes to mind. Once you get the habit of conscious selection, use will turn it into a habit.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. R

    Incredibly helpful post. Just identifying this problem has been heartening for me, inasmuch as my last two projects bogged down in this very mire, and at the time I lacked the awareness to figure it out.

    I feel a renewed sense of optimism, and an urge to get back to work

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Word accessibility (such a great term) is one of the reasons I enjoy Vance’s writing so much. That man was truly gifted, or else he must have devoted a considerable amount of time to daily dictionary reading.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I actually thought about him when writing this because I once read an interview with him, in his final years, The Genre Artists:

      And one bit stuck with me:

      “Now Vance has begun to lose words. When he made a little show of waving me toward his bar and said, “Go get yourself a drink of single-malt scotch,” he laughed and added: “There’s a word I can’t remember to describe that. It has a sense of aesthetic mastery, of command, but also a sense of thinking highly of yourself.”

      Clark Ashton Smith was probably a bit like that too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Writing experiment – Emperor's Notepad

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