Building Your Vocabulary Can Hurt Your Writing

Seeking to improve one’s writing (any kind of writing) is, of course, laudable. But there are an awful lot of bad products out there that, while claiming to help your writing, are likely to do just the opposite. I’m referring today to all writing, but in particular email, since it’s a big percentage of the writing that most of us do.

One of the simplest ways to try to make your writing better, but in fact make it worse, is to try to boost your vocabulary. This is not to say vocabulary doesn’t matter; it does. But because learning more words is a lot easier than building up skills that good writing requires, it’s easy to see vocabulary as a quick way to improve. But growing your vocabulary should be the last rather than the first step to improving your writing.

It’s not really your fault

Lawyers are collectively kind of screwed when it comes to writing. Most lawyers don’t write very well, and it’s not really their fault. In applying to law school, what does one need? A bachelor’s degree, in anything, good grades, and a good score on a test that measures (at least in some fashion) one’s ability to read, but not one’s ability to write, as the writing section is not even scored.

And despite the fact that writing and speaking effectively are absolutely essential to being an effective attorney, law schools don’t care. Legal writing is shunted off to the side, taught by non-tenured faculty whose significantly lower pay indicates how important their work is to the school. Most of them are law firm refugees and aren’t trained to teach writing. My legal writing class was torture—I felt like its goal was to kill the love for writing that partly got me interested in law school in the first place. (And as for public speaking, at my school the only formal public speaking requirement was a mock appellate oral argument. Huh? What percentage of lawyers appear at appellate oral arguments?)

Click here, write well tomorrow!

If one did not develop the ability to write well before law school, and law school doesn’t teach it, it’s understandable that a very busy lawyer whose writing draws criticism might seek what sound like simple solutions. While the prospect of studying grammar, usage, and style can be daunting, it’s easy to jump online and find this, part of a sales pitch for an online class:

A strong vocabulary will not only give you the tools to say and write exactly what you mean it can also help you on a job interview, communicate better with a doctor or your lawyer and certainly help you with school work. A good vocabulary makes you sound smarter, feel more assured and practically guarantees you’ll be a better writer and speaker.

Not only is this factually (and in terms of its punctuation) incorrect, but the result of taking this class is likely to be the opposite of what’s promised. There are two ways to learn to string letters, words, and punctuation marks together into coherent sentences. The straightforward, but time-consuming way, is to read and write, with your writing getting constructive criticism from an expert.

If you haven’t developed that skill through reading and writing (whether in school or elsewhere), your shaky writing foundation is much more likely to collapse when asked to support a “good vocabulary.” When one encounters fundamentally flawed writing, having to slog through a bunch of tacked-on “impressive” vocabulary makes it significantly more time-consuming, tedious, and frustrating. Highfalutin’ words make bad writing worse.

Some traditional reference books can hurt as well. Consulting a thesaurus might seem a fine way to spice up your vocabulary, but if you pull a substitue word from a thesaurus without being very familiar with the word you are selecting, it’s quite likely you won’t be expressing what you are thinking. Use a thesaurus only to help you find a word you already know but can’t remember off the top of your head.

Proper placement of horse and cart

The best route for a poor writer (and I’m sorry to have to say this, but an awful lot of lawyers struggle to even write passably—another abject failure of law schools and bar examiners, for passing these poor souls) is to take an introductory composition class that will give one the ability to parse sentences so as to know if they are grammatically correct. There are a number of grammar books on the market as well. Once one improves one’s grammar, one can move on to usage and style, which allow one to rise from competent to something better than competent.

As for building vocabulary, I have a thesaurus (a gift) but very rarely use it. But I love learning new words—when I encounter them in good writing. Then I look them up, think about them, and, maybe, eventually they’ll pop up, organically, in my writing. I’m hopeful that then, the word might help me communicate, rather than show off my big, impressive vocabulary.

(image: cute little boy holding a dictionary from Shutterstock)


  1. Avatar Matthew S. says:

    Stephen King, On Writing:

    “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”

    Enough said.

  2. “The best route for a poor writer … is to take an introductory composition class that will give one the ability to parse sentences so as to know if they are grammatically correct.”

    Good luck finding one of those in your average college or university. The focus of even as lowly a class as Comp 101 is rhetoric, not grammar or even style. (I actually requested–as an English major, mind you–permission to take my university’s ONE grammar course and was told it was strictly for Education majors.) Part of the reason so many lawyers can’t write is because The Academy values impressive writing (big words, long sentences, obtuse structure) over clear writing.

    One of the best books ever written on cleaning up bad writing is Richard A. Lanham’s Revising Prose. Faithfully followed, it will undo much of the damage done by 16+ years of exposure to our pathetic education system.

    • Avatar Andy M. says:

      My father taught English in the University of Wisconsin system, and occasionally he had to teach English 101: Composition. This was a class required of Freshmen that lacked college-level writing skills . He described it to me as a last-ditch attempt to teach students how to construct a proper sentence. I’m not too surprised this kind of class is no longer available. But that’s a terrible disservice to students.

  3. Avatar Paul says:

    My Legal Writing professors pushed us to write clearly. In first year, we were told to read Plain English for Lawyers by Richard C. Wydick. The professor assigned us various exercises from the book. Maybe I will go through it again and see how much it helps.

  4. Avatar Rob Sullivan says:

    Exactly right Andy. I actively dumb down my legal writing. This gives non-lawyers a shot at understanding it. It is even more important with overworked trial court judges. If you want what you submit to be read by a judge with a docket of hundreds or thousands of cases, it had better be short and to the point. Commas are the enemy. If only two syllable words will work, do it. The easier to read the better. There are no style points in motion practice.

  5. Interesting article, and harks back to the beginning of my career. My writing was so poor that my first year university lecturer placed so much red on my first assignment, that she rightfully encouraged me to take English 101. I was upset at the time and eternally grateful as it encouraged me to undertake two more writing courses in the first two years of my career. I am forever grateful, and so is my audience.

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