5 Ways to Refresh Your Palette

No, that is not a misspelling in the title, although palette is a commonly confused word. I am not referring to our taste buds (palate), but to the tools of our craft, the raw material that we as writers apply to the canvas of our document, and which we unfortunately so often neglect, allowing our tints, shades, and hues to fade over time and with use, to lose their freshness, their vivacity, and even their precision until our reader sees only a faint anemic version of a thought born dynamic.

The Artist's PaletteI’m talking about the words we use to paint the picture of our ideas. I believe that we must from time to time restore our canvases and invest our palette with new vigor. This requires both tools and training. For the first, we would be wise to have three instruments at our disposal:

a) A collegiate encyclopedic unabridged dictionary. My personal preference is for Webster, for reasons which I’ve explained on my page Advanced Writing Resources.

b) I highly recommend what my writer friend Anna calls a flip dictionary. This is a useful tool for when you know what you want to say but can’t remember how to say it.

c) No matter what field you’re in, you need a specialized dictionary with terms from your discipline, whether it be business, biology, chemistry, literature, or philosophy.

But tools alone are insufficient without the skilled hands of a practitioner who understands how to wield them. However seasoned we may be, we can all benefit from investing in ourselves and what is after all our own livelihood. Here are five ways you can enhance your palette and enrich your writing:

1) Read: This is my favorite suggestion since it involves the activity I most love. Unfortunately it’s neither as simple or as relaxing as it perhaps sounds. Reading to enhance our vocabulary is an exercise that requires some engagement. First, we have to read works that are slightly more challenging than even perhaps this blog post 🙂 We must go out of our way to choose works of literature or non-fiction that are written at a higher reading level than what we generally strive for. And we must interact with those works as we read them, identifying words we don’t know, looking them up in a good dictionary, and making an effort to use them in our works in ways that are natural and not strained.

Scrabble Tiles

Playing word games like Scrabble helps to improve your vocabulary.

2) Play Games: Perhaps one of the more exciting pieces of advice, playing games like Scrabble in which the players make words from assorted letters can be an excellent way to build your vocabulary, but only if you’re engaged with other players (otherwise you won’t have much of an opportunity to learn). Remember that seek-a-word or find-a-word isn’t really the best option, especially if you’re playing with proper names.

3) Watch TV: This technique works better for ESL learners than for native English speakers. Be sure to do so with the closed-captioning or subtitles turned on so that you can see the words scrolling across the screen as they’re being spoken. If you can record the programs and practice your pronunciation, this is also a great help for clearly enunciating the language.

4) Learn a new language: Even a rudimentary introduction to the vocabulary of another language can expand your understanding of your native language and show you the roots of and connections between words, opening new doors in your native tongue. If learning a new language seems daunting or time-consuming, pay special attention the etymologies of language, and make a commitment to learn two words connected by history, root, or synonym to any word you add to your vocabulary.

5) Listen to podcasts: Finally, listening to language apart from any visual stimuli can sometimes isolate words that maybe you’ve heard before. These words can gain new meaning when you hear them. Again, be sure to listen to podcasts about language, such as Grammar Girls’ Quick and Dirty Tips, or podcasts in fields that are not your typical field of study. So if you’re a scientist, listen to podcasts about literature. If you’re a philosopher, listen to podcasts about life science. That kind of cross-disciplinary study can expose you to vocabulary terms that you wouldn’t normally encounter in your day-to-day work.

I hope you find these suggestions useful and that you’re able to employ them to cleanse your palette, mix your colors afresh, and apply a new tint to an old base. And I hope you’ll stay tuned, because I have a very exciting announcement to make – THURSDAY May 24, 2012! If you’re not already on my list, you’ll want to sign up NOW to make sure you’re among the first people to hear what I have to share!!


  1. Hi Michelle,

    Thank you for mentioning the flip dictionary.

    I think this post is such a useful one.

    Years ago, I was on a quest to become well-spoken and articulate so that people didn’t think less of me. My half-baked plan included looking up a word in the dictionary each day, but I was forgetting to do that. As a result I subscribed to the Word-a-day at . There are other similar resources that you can use. I would encourage your readers to visit refdesk.com and poke around. In fact, the web site is a huge distraction for me.

    I have another suggestion for your readers, which I implemented years ago for the very reason

  2. Ooops! I clicked Enter too quickly!

    In my previous post, I meant to give the details on the wordsmith.org web site. You can subscribe to it in order to receive daily emails containing the definition and usage of a word.

    • Always good to hear from you Anna! Thanks for the suggestions and references. I know I’ll be adding wordsmith.org to my email list, because I need another distraction 😉 All my best – Michelle

  3. I always enjoy reading your posts, Michelle. I like your suggestion to learn another language.

  4. I’m not sure I agree with your thought that you have to choose works that are written at a higher level in order to broaden your vocabulary and enrich your writing. I’ve found that there are lots of pop fiction writers use a wide range of vocabulary and language in their books — ones that are not considered literary by any means. These works in the hands of audiences that are engaged with whatever genre the books are written in, can be powerful tools for increasing vocabulary.

    • You know Robin, on second thought, I think you’re right. I was thinking of a specific type of vocabulary expansion – vertical – and in so doing, I neglected the lateral engagement that other texts can give us. Thank you for this comment.

  5. A ‘flip’ dictionary? New term for me.. still the best form of dictionary in my opinion and I’m glad it is first on the list! PS – glad word games is also included; we hold a weekly ‘Scrabble’ night. Unfortunately TV needs a few qualifiers considering that American English is not necessary used in recent pop shows..


  1. […] Your thesaurus is extremely handy for avoiding repetitive phrases when you absolutely must say the same thing over and over (see what I did there?), for informally defining words that may be unfamiliar to a reader, or just to refresh your palette. […]

  2. […] 5 Ways to Refresh Your Palette – Michelle Baker […]

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