Writing by Design

becoming a professional writer

The Claim: It Pays To Increase Your Word Power

For several years now I’ve been giving my first-year writing students a vocabulary quiz as part of their writing diagnostics.  I’ve noticed a strong correlation between final grades in the course and how well (or badly) students do on the vocabulary quiz. Although intuitively the link between a wide vocabulary and writing seems clear–students with more word power have probably read more widely than their classmates–I didn’t like to push that correlation into the realm of causation.

Until this week, that is, when I reviewed some research about the characteristics of successful professional writers and discovered a number of studies that clearly demonstrate the importance of verbal range and ability.

As far back as 1984, researchers scrutinized the ways writers depend on verbal ability and fluency when writing a cohesive text and concluded that “fluency in sentence generation and forging links among sentences depends on… linguistic expertise.” (McCutchen, 1984)

A more recent study (Chenoweth and Hayes,  2003) watched how writers built and then evaluated their sentences.  Writers, it seems, write in bursts of words; more experienced writers generated twice as many words per burst as their less experienced counterparts.

The message, according to the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance? “Both vocabulary size and diversity in word choice correlate positively with judgments of writing effectiveness.”


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