What I Teach at My First Writing Class

An entry from my Word Power Book: Sometimes, we can marvel at the lines and words our eyes have traversed. Where did I come across this word?

“Think of each word you write in
your vocabulary book as a dollar.”

VOCABULARY and parts of speech may not sound like the coolest things to talk about at your first writing class, but fundamentals are vital, so are good habits. If you want to write well, or at least not write badly, the most basic thing you need to do is to load up on words, get to know them, how they work, and the magic they can do.

If you can’t feel the magic just because reading is boring, and sentences make you dizzy, or you happen to loathe everything about English just because your school teacher sucks, don’t fret. The ability to feel magic and the flutterings of beauty can come later.

Build Your Word Power
What you must first concern yourself with, however, is word power. Increase it day by day, every other day, or every other two days, or three, if you happen to be as busy as the Prime Minister, or a bee.

If you must find an excuse, tell it to yourself, not your Mom or Dad, not least me. We’re all busy. We have no time. Whisper the excuse, articulate it clearly, so that even the wall can hear you say, “I have no time.”

The point is: Just keep at it, keep keeping at it, don’t stop.

Think of each word you write in your vocabulary book as a dollar. That always helps. Five words this week, one word the next, maybe none two weeks hence (the Weeks of Word Poverty!), but 18 words the week after as you play catch up. They all add up. Well, $365 at the end of the year for a year’s worth of one-word-per-day effort isn’t exactly peanuts.

So, let’s get started.

How To Capture a Word Entry
The next thing
I’ll talk about is the method of capturing each word entry. Find a ruled notebook—could be a school exercise book, something hardcover or ring-bound, or fancier like a Moleskine, which may just get you into the mood. Choosing your favorite color helps, but above all, go with whatever makes you happy.

Here’s where I’ll pull out my ring-bound Word Power Book from the shelf, and share with you my latest word—as of today, that word is knaidel, my 1,212th entry. Then, I’ll show you how each word entry is a near replica of what I see in my Oxford, my go-to dictionary in my MacBook Air.

This, for instance, is Oxford’s entry:

replica | ˈrɛpləkə |
an exact copy or model of something, especially one on a smaller scale

This would be mine:

replica (n)
an exact copy or model of something, especially one on a smaller scale

Phonetic Symbols
Those undecipherable phonetic symbols, we can save for a sunnier day down the road when you have a hankering to geek out and learn pronunciation the traditional way. But why should you, when almost every online dictionary out there has a ‘hit play’ button accompanying each word? Click, and some gorgeous, mellifluous voice, or a tinny, robotic one, will articulate the word for you, if you’re into this sort of efficiency and inspired laziness. But who isn’t in this Age of Let’s Click, I Ain’t Got No Time?

Which really leaves you with one other detail—to capture the part of speech, the noun here in this case, which can simply be coded as “n” in brackets, or “v” should you be making a verb entry, or “adj” for adjectives, and “adv” for adverbs.

Hark, the werewolf cometh!

Words That Begin With Capital Letters
Remember to capture the first alphabet as a small letter, not in caps: “replica” and not “Replica.” You want to save the caps for words that do carry first-letter caps, such as Lucullan or Herculean.

1. Lucullan (adj)
    (especially of food) extremely luxurious

2. Herculean (adj)
    requiring great strength or effort

One last anal detail: line up the definition directly below the word (not the number), and definitely don’t capture it in run-on style:

2. Herculean (adj) requiring great strength or effort

I say this run-on look looks messy, and it causes an itch in the eye, itchier still if the definition spills over into the next line. But if you like to maximize every inch of real estate on your page, go on, embrace the mess! Just know that if you were my student, you have no choice but to do it my way.

I worship at the temple of David Ogilvy and all the genius copywriters and creative designers of his lineage, and you shall as well. Clean, clear look—good for the eyes, kind to the mind. Attention to detail. That’s my one sole goal in life. There’s no other option.

So go, get started! Find yourself a notebook, and make that first entry. Carve a new journey for yourself.

Next week: More on parts of speech, and why getting acquainted with them will help you make better writing decisions 

Write Well is a series of essays offering insights on how to write with
confidence, clarity, and style.

I invite you to follow me as I share the universal principles of writing well.
I’d also be interested to hear your observations on how we approach
writing and reading instruction in our schools, and your challenges.

Please share a comment below, or say hello to me at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s