Play with Words to Improve Your Vocabulary: a Message from Jennifer Stewart of Write101.com

Do you dream of finally writing that big novel you’ve been thinking about for years? Does your job require you to produce high-quality, professional documents? Or are you just looking for the best advice on how to avoid making errors in grammar, spelling, and vocabulary? Whether you answered “yes” to one or all of these questions, the answers you need are at Jennifer Stewart’s website. You’ll find articles about starting a career as a freelance writer, explanations of common English-language mistakes (and foolproof fixes), and weekly hints on becoming a skilled and fluent communicator. We recently talked to Jennifer about her website, and what inspired her to share her language skills with others.

UV: You’re an internet pioneer, having started your website in 1998. Were you an author and language instructor before then as well?

Jennifer Stewart: For twenty years I was a High School English teacher, and I loved the experience of watching these young people change and grow in the six years they were in my care. They arrived as 12-year-old children who were interested in reading comics and adventure stories, but left me as young men and women who shared my love of language. However, all good things come to an end, and the change really started one day during my long service leave …

I was sitting in the dentist’s chair having root canal treatment and it occurred to me that at this time I would normally be teaching my year nine class (students around 15 years of age). When I realised that I’d rather be sitting where I was than in front of a class, I knew it was time to look for something new!

After leaving teaching I spent six months doing all the things that teachers dream of doing when they’re busy preparing lessons and marking assignments, and then I had nothing to do, so in desperation, I turned back to my teaching notes — thinking I’d just go through them and toss out all but the really interesting ones. It was while I was doing this, that I realised what a resource I’d accumulated over twenty years and I decided to put them to use again.
My first inclination was to set up a coaching college for after-school and holiday times, but I reasoned that scenario was limited by the physical space available and by the number of students who lived close enough.

My next thought was to conduct seminars for businesses — but after six months of not having to wear make-up, not having to get dressed up in suits, not having to be conscious of my every move (as is the case when teaching), I couldn’t bring myself to get back into that scene.

The solution that finally struck me was one of those “bleeding obvious” cases — if I didn’t want to have people come to me and I didn’t want to go to them, what else could I do?

I could send the information to them!

I spent several months writing a series of tutorials that would help people master the intricacies of our language, so they could confidently take on any writing tasks.

Then I registered a business name, had my tutorials printed, got myself an 1800 number, a Postage Paid address and ran a series of two-step ads in the major Saturday papers. I was building up a steady stream of customers (although nothing like the hundreds I’d fantasised about), when I discovered the Internet! Here was a way to sell to millions, not just thousands (I’ve always been an optimist…) As we all know, it doesn’t happen that way — but it does happen eventually!

Having been online for so long, I’ve seen lots of changes in the way people use the Internet. I can still remember reading one of the newsletters I’d signed up to in 1998 and answering a plea from a couple of students who were testing a new search engine for their university research project. It had a funny name, so I abandoned my allegiance to Alta Vista and added my fledgling site to Google. (If only I’d bought shares, too!)

UV: Your weekly newsletters are full of humorous stories as well as valuable advice on the English language. How can people use humor to improve their writing?

Jennifer: It’s always much easier to remember information when you want to remember it, and humour is a great help here. I hope that everyone who read my little piece about having friends around for dinner and using the good glasses (as opposed to their evil twins) would be able to choose a better word from the 432 words we discovered exist to describe a variety of “good” things.

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, there’s always room for a light-hearted touch, and you only have to think of a eulogy to know how effective humour can be in even the darkest hour.

Almost any piece of writing will benefit from a humorous and relevant anecdote, example or comment (note that it must be relevant and not forced). It can help release tension, emphasise an important point, and focus the reader’s attention.

UV: What advice do you have for people who are struggling to find the right words to express themselves?

Jennifer: There are really three simple things everyone can do to become a better writer:

1. The one sure way to improve your writing is the same way you improve any skill – you must practise! Pick up a pen (or put dainty digit to keyboard) and write. The more times you do this, the better your writing will be.

2. And you must read what others have written, in this way you’ll have models for different types of writing stored in your little grey cells to call up when needed.

3. Finally, you need to build up a store of words you can use for every writing need. As we saw with our “good glasses” example, the English language has words for every nuance of meaning, (the Oxford English Dictionary estimates there are around three quarters of a million words!) and we owe it to ourselves and our readers to spend a bit of time to find the best word to use.

UV: Your four-part writing course, “How to Write Well,” is designed to help older students and adults correct any mistakes they’re currently making, and get the skills they need to succeed at school and in the professional world. Do you have any course materials for younger students?

Jennifer: Because the tutorials begin at the beginning (with the basics of grammar – parts of speech etc.) younger students can work through the first lessons to master these “building blocks” of writing. I also have ebooks for parents of toddlers and pre-schoolers to help give them ideas for educational activities they can do with their children.

UV: If you had only one piece of advice to give to someone who wanted to improve their vocabulary, what would it be?

Jennifer: That’s an easy question, and my answer is … play with words!

Think how even the youngest of children love word games and nonsense words and you’ll see why that’s the best way to learn yourself.

Find a program that has plenty of different types of word games and you’ll find yourself building a super vocabulary in no time.

Get More Valuable Writing Tips From Jennifer Stewart At www.Write101.com


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