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Word Choices: Developing Vocabulary in Creative Writing

Through activities in her creative writing class, Lora Yasen helps students realize that they are far more creative and capable than they think. See Fang Ying's Portal article, "The Vocabulary-Building Power of Story Creation," Essential Teacher, September 2008.

"Welcome to Creative Writing class," I say to my Japanese university students who are studying English in the United States. "We will study creative writing skills, write short stories, and then spend a month writing a short novella."

Students protest in horror: "I have no imagination," "I don't have enough vocabulary," "I have never written a story before."

We begin with a well-known story structure for new writers:

Put a man up a tree.

Throw stones at him.

Get him down.

With this simple framework, students begin imagining why the man is in a tree, who is throwing stones at him, and how he will get down. So they quickly begin using their imaginations, discovering new vocabulary words, and writing simple short stories.

Discovering New Ways to Express Themselves

I set the guidelines for each writing assignment and give students the freedom to find their own methods of choosing words. At first, some choose to use the vocabulary they already know. They are surprised at how many words they can actually use when they focus on communicating their ideas. They recycle the known words several times, search for new words when needed, and write many simple sentences and paragraphs.

Soon students are eager to find new and complex ways to communicate their ideas and take on a self-directed approach to learning new vocabulary. They decide which words they need in order to communicate their ideas clearly. They assume responsibility and search for the appropriate words that have the meanings and nuances they want. The following excerpt from a student’s story shows how he used a new word of his choice, enormous:

I was thirsty because there was no poem in my mind anymore. I didn't feel sad, angry, happy and any other emotions, I was just living. Time runs like the Columbia River, it looks slow, but an enormous amount of water goes by. I just live, and someday, I get to ocean, and my identity if I have one, will break then.

Students use a variety of sources to discover their new vocabulary. They use dictionaries, ask the instructor and their friends, and try out new expressions that they hear on campus. They put the new words into writing and use trial and error to test their new words. Students initiate conversations in English to check the clarity and accuracy of their writing. They also work on using correct word forms. And they ask native speakers about their sentences:

"Is this word strange?"

"What I want to say is . . . ."

"I think this is wrong, but I don’t know the form."

After experimenting with their new words, students receive more feedback from the instructor as well as friends who are native English speakers. Sometimes the native speakers recommend different words to improve the ESL students' writing, which helps these nonnative speakers learn another synonym or a more accurate word to convey the meanings they intend. During peer feedback exercises in class, the student readers often ask the writers to explain new vocabulary words, so students share their word knowledge with each other. Because students use these new words again and again in their writing, and in talking about their stories, the words become part of their active vocabulary. Discovering and using new vocabulary seems to happen naturally in the writing process and often leads to more conversations in English.

Finding a Story to Tell

Descriptive writing encourages the use of new vocabulary words, for example, in planning a story setting. A "setting" field trip to a historic home, garden, or horse show can inspire vocabulary learning. Students imagine the location as a story setting and describe it. They write about the location; the era for their story; and what they see, hear, feel, and smell in the location. Perhaps only pieces of this description appear in the final story, but imaginations are inspired.

Describing characters also encourages the learning of new vocabulary. During a class "observation" field trip to a local bookstore, students look around for a character to use in a story. They watch the customers, the clerks, and the coffee baristas as these people interact with others. Students start taking notes on the character that they choose and describe the appearance of this person (e.g., clothing, age, gender) and any conversations that they overhear the person having with others. Then students imagine a life for the character. They write about what the person does for a living; his or her dreams, passions, hobbies, education, and occupation; the types of books he or she reads; and why this person is in the bookstore. Later, students prepare character posters, and they use all of their new descriptive vocabulary to depict this person in a short presentation to the class. Students then choose one or more characters from the posters and write stories about them. Sometimes they choose their own character for a story, and other times they borrow a classmate’s character (and vocabulary words).

Character and Dialogue

Vocabulary choices are important when writing dialogues. Age, gender, occupation, and other background information about a character may determine the words that are appropriate to use. The college student character can use the latest slang expressions and talk about text messaging in a story, but the grandmother character probably wouldn't do so. Writing dialogues for different characters allows students to experiment with words and practice phrases that speakers might use in a variety of conversations that change with different conversation partners.

Frequently, creative writing requires a "show, don't tell" approach to providing descriptive information about characters. This sample illustrates how a student added descriptive words to dialogue to show a change in appearance and condition:

"By the way," Eligor said, "your eyes are kind of odd."

"What?" I replied.

"Because your right eye is black like darkness, but your left eye is mixed colors of sepia and olive green," he said so casually.

"What! Am I cursed?"

Word choices in dialogue should also stem from the characters' personalities. Kempton (2004) suggests that the enneagram personality type descriptors are helpful in writing dialogue. Personality types explain character motivation and reactions, which influence what the characters may say. I give students a short summary of the different personality types (e.g., artist, achiever) and a list of traits that a character with a certain personality type might have. In character, students participate in conversations about weekend activities and quickly guess the personality types of the others in their group from their words and reactions. Then students work together to write dialogues using the enneagram personalities as characters, looking for new words and phrases that are fitting for each type. The groups trade dialogues with each other and try to guess each character's personality type and explain their reasoning.

The Benefits of Developing Vocabulary Through Writing

Vocabulary development comes into play in many ways during creative writing. Students can initiate learning new words on their own, and instructors can arrange activities and assignments to encourage the discovery of new expressions. The different aspects of writing a story (e.g., setting, description, character, dialogue) are also conducive to vocabulary improvement.

What important advice about word choice can I offer to creative writers? I often say, "Have you ever watched a movie? Think about your stories like you are watching a movie inside your head, and then write your story with descriptive vocabulary so that your readers can see the same movie."


Kempton, G. (2004). Dialogue: Techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books.

Lora Yasen ( is an associate professor of ESL at Tokyo International University of America, in Salem, Oregon, in the United States.