No, that is not a misspelling in the title, although palette is a commonly confused word. I am not referring to our taste buds (palate), but to the tools of our craft, the raw material that we as writers apply to the canvas of our document, and which we unfortunately so often neglect, allowing our tints, shades, and hues to fade over time and with use, to lose their freshness, their vivacity, and even their precision until our reader sees only a faint anemic version of a thought born dynamic.
I’m talking about the words we use to paint the picture of our ideas. I believe that we must from time to time restore our canvases and invest our palette with new vigor. This requires both tools and training. For the first, we would be wise to have three instruments at our disposal:
a) A collegiate encyclopedic unabridged dictionary. My personal preference is for Webster, for reasons which I’ve explained on my page Advanced Writing Resources.
b) I highly recommend what my writer friend Anna calls a flip dictionary. This is a useful tool for when you know what you want to say but can’t remember how to say it.
c) No matter what field you’re in, you need a specialized dictionary with terms from your discipline, whether it be business, biology, chemistry, literature, or philosophy.
But tools alone are insufficient without the skilled hands of a practitioner who understands how to wield them. However seasoned we may be, we can all benefit from investing in ourselves and what is after all our own livelihood. Here are five ways you can enhance your palette and enrich your writing:
1) Read: This is my favorite suggestion since it involves the activity I most love. Unfortunately it’s neither as simple or as relaxing as it perhaps sounds. Reading to enhance our vocabulary is an exercise that requires some engagement. First, we have to read works that are slightly more challenging than even perhaps this blog post :) We must go out of our way to choose works of literature or non-fiction that are written at a higher reading level than what we generally strive for. And we must interact with those works as we read them, identifying words we don’t know, looking them up in a good dictionary, and making an effort to use them in our works in ways that are natural and not strained.
2) Play Games: Perhaps one of the more exciting pieces of advice, playing games like Scrabble in which the players make words from assorted letters can be an excellent way to build your vocabulary, but only if you’re engaged with other players (otherwise you won’t have much of an opportunity to learn). Remember that seek-a-word or find-a-word isn’t really the best option, especially if you’re playing with proper names.
3) Watch TV: This technique works better for ESL learners than for native English speakers. Be sure to do so with the closed-captioning or subtitles turned on so that you can see the words scrolling across the screen as they’re being spoken. If you can record the programs and practice your pronunciation, this is also a great help for clearly enunciating the language.
4) Learn a new language: Even a rudimentary introduction to the vocabulary of another language can expand your understanding of your native language and show you the roots of and connections between words, opening new doors in your native tongue. If learning a new language seems daunting or time-consuming, pay special attention the etymologies of language, and make a commitment to learn two words connected by history, root, or synonym to any word you add to your vocabulary.
5) Listen to podcasts: Finally, listening to language apart from any visual stimuli can sometimes isolate words that maybe you’ve heard before. These words can gain new meaning when you hear them. Again, be sure to listen to podcasts about language, such as Grammar Girls’ Quick and Dirty Tips, or podcasts in fields that are not your typical field of study. So if you’re a scientist, listen to podcasts about literature. If you’re a philosopher, listen to podcasts about life science. That kind of cross-disciplinary study can expose you to vocabulary terms that you wouldn’t normally encounter in your day-to-day work.
I hope you find these suggestions useful and that you’re able to employ them to cleanse your palette, mix your colors afresh, and apply a new tint to an old base. And I hope you’ll stay tuned, because I have a very exciting announcement to make – THURSDAY May 24, 2012! If you’re not already on my list, you’ll want to sign up NOW to make sure you’re among the first people to hear what I have to share!!