Friday, July 18, 2008

(24) Diction (Word Choice)

A key skill of any writer is making appropriate and sharp word choices. Writers should be careful to select words that carry the appropriate meaning and tone for the purpose of the text. [EDIT]

Although this story may be more Urban Legend than history, James Joyce spent an entire 24 hours once, walking about his home town asking everyone he saw about one word he was considering for a piece he was writing. While extreme, this story does capture the importance of word choice for the writer.

Writers must choose their words carefully, seeking always the appropriate word for the context of the purpose of the composition. Writers should prefer accessible words—words that the audience knows—and, above all else, specific words.

A few strategies can help writers grow more expert in their diction. Pay attention to the following words and phrases as you draft:

• Avoid “good,” “bad,” “very,” “a lot,” “nice,” “great,” and other common words that have lost their power through overuse in our daily speech.

• Avoid forms of “to say” when choosing a verb while integrating your source material or while discussing speakers in poetry and narrators or characters in fiction. Some alternatives include: “to explain,” “to argue,” “to detail,” “to specify,” “to mention,” “to show,” and “to reveal.”

• Avoid characterizing your own writing or the writing/research of others using the construction “try to”—as in “Bomer tries to convince his readers to reconsider the work of Ruby Payne.” Prefer taking a more solid assessment of what you or other writers do or do not accomplish.

• Avoid “use” and “utilize” when possible (avoid “utilize” always). A technique you can apply when drafting is to attack “to use” sentences in the following way:

Recast “Dickinson uses personification in ‘Because I could not stop for Death’” as “Dickinson personifies death in ‘Because I could not stop for Death.’”

• Avoid all forms of “to get.”

• Avoid slang, except within dialogue or in first-person narration when the language of the character or narrator would include slang. Consult the on-line resource listed below for further discussions of slang:

• Avoid verb forms that include tag-on prepositions, such as “up” and “out.” Some to avoid include: “stands up,” “breaks off,” “throws out,” “talks about,” “thinks about,” “finds out.” Most of these verb forms have more specific and effective synonyms or the preposition is redundant; consider:

“stands up” >>>>> “stands”

“throws out” >>>>> “discards”

“talks about” >>>>> “discusses”

“finds out” >>>>> “discovers”

• Avoid “help but” and “doubt but” constructions. For example, recast “She could not help but cry at the wedding” as “She could not help crying at the wedding.”

• Do not use “irregardless,” but choose “regardless” instead since “irregardless” is a careless word creation that has crept into the language but marks the user as unsophisticated.

• Be careful not to choose “literally” when you mean “figuratively.” Many writers construct sentences such as “The audience literally laughed their heads off.” Of course, the writer means to be figurative so a better recasting would be, “The audience laughed their heads off,” allowing the reader to appreciate the hyperbole.

• Avoid word forms including “-like,” “-wise,” and “-ize.” Some constructions, however, will be necessary, such as “childlike,” but many readers find these word forms harsh and awkward.

• Do not create a part of speech when the word already fulfills your need. Consider “first,” “second,” “last,” and other transitional words. They are already adverbs; thus, we have no need to create “secondly” or “lastly.”

• When you choose “unique,” be careful not to qualify. “Unique” cannot be “more” or “most” as something is either unique, or not. “Unique” has a quality similar to “dead” in that respect.

• Select between “filled with” and “full of” carefully. “Filled with” should be preferred when you need a positive connotation: “The room was filled with the aroma of newly cut flowers.” “Full of” has a negative connotation: “His speech was full of hateful condemnations of his opponent.”

• Choose “because” carefully and only when you intend a causational relationship.

• Avoid “there [to be]” sentence formations. Usually, recasting the sentence is more effective. “There are students loitering in the hallways” is not as direct as “Students are loitering in the hallway.”

• Choose carefully between “and” and “and then” since the choice distinguishes between a parallel and a sequence.

• Know the language of the field within which you are writing, and know the language of your intended audience. Writers should avoid jargon (again, see the link early in this section for a discussion of jargon) and exclusive language, but the precise language of a field is crucial for the writer to be accepted as credible. For example, “point of view” and “character” have different meanings in common language and in the field of literature. “I see your point of view” is distinct from “Ann Tyler’s narration is in second person point of view, creating a story that challenges the reader’s expectations for narration.”

• Be aware of and sensitive to your audience’s concern for sexist language use. Here, the writer is in difficult waters. Many are now vigilant in keeping language gender neutral since English has a history of sexist patterns (see (11) concerning pronoun use), but others are encouraging a backlash against recognizing sexist language, labeling such concerns as “politically correct”—a pejorative term intended to demean the issue. A writer making an effort to choose “humanity” over “mankind,” it seems, is seeking to use language that is precise and sophisticated.

• Avoid euphemisms since they mask instead of convey accurately (see the link earlier for a fuller discussion of euphemisms). One example is the use of “near miss” in the airline industry; the deceit of the term is that when two planes come very close to each other, they have experienced nearly hitting. When you miss something, it is entirely regardless of how close the objects are when they pass. But the airline industry has no interest, in terms of public relations, for discussing planes hitting.

• Choose powerful and vivid verbs when integrating source material; for a list of such verbs go here:

Effective Verbs for Referring to Source Material