Monthly Archives: November 2012

Finding the Right Word Is Critical to Correct Diction

Last week’s blog emphasized the need to have correct diction, the choice of correct, clear, and effective words, as a step towards clear writing.  There are several pitfalls to avoid. Being concise in your writing and eliminating excess language is part of this process.  Having a powerful vocabulary is also necessary to achieve this goal.  But a strong vocabulary will also help to avoid another pitfall on the road to correct diction – failure to use the exact word.

Searching for, finding, and using, the right word is a process I’ve learned to focus on as part of my ongoing writing experience.  Many years ago I was head of the legal defense team responsible for defending Doris Day’s lawyer, Jerry Rosenthal, against legal malpractice charges.   I came away from that case impressed with Rosenthal’s writing skills, and in particular with his penchant to find and use the exact word he needed to precisely express his thinking, whether in writing or speaking.  He had a fixation on word selection, and an extensive vocabulary to go with it.  He boasted to me one day that the clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court had advised him that his framing of the issue in a petition he had written was the most clearly worded issue the clerk had ever seen.  My involvement in this case and the writing tips I picked up are discussed in more detail in my eBook, “The Art of Clear Writing,” available at amazon.com/kindlebooks, soon to be available in print as well.

The lesson I’ve learned is not to settle for approximations of my thoughts.  Imprecise words and expressions detract from clarity and may cause your reader to question all the other  statements you make.  Generalities will roll off a reader like water off a duck’s back.  Accuracy of word usage is what you are after. The U.S. Government has attempted to encourage the development of better writing in the Plain Writing Act of 2009, which inspired some of the ideas used in my eBook.  This legislation is an attempt by Congress to enhance citizen access to government information by mandating that government documents issued to the public must be written in plain English.  But as pointed out in the Acknowledgements for my eBook, the government’s use of the term “plain writing” is not as accurate as the use of “clear writing” would be, because the former is somewhat ambiguous.   What is “plain” writing?  Is it “plain” because it is not fancy, because it is not written in some esoteric script, or for some other unknown reason?  The mental discipline of searching for and finding the right word will pay huge dividends for you in developing a clear writing style.

The use of the word “cool,” greatly overused in today’s society, is a good example of a word which has no precise meaning.  It has little place in formal writing.  Use of precise words to describe exactly what you see in a certain locale is one example of where specificity is greatly needed.  Generalization here will fall flat. For example, if you were to write that Murphys, California is a “cool” place to visit, the reader would have little understanding of what you mean and would have no incentive to go there.  But if you wrote that it’s nestled in the farmland of the upper San Joaquin Valley, that you must drive through rolling pastoral countryside to get there, that it’s a living remnant of the Old West, and that it’s a shopper’s delight complete with casual dining and a nearby winery, the added specificity will make a visit sound much more inviting.

If you were writing a review of a machine and you simply wrote that it is a “bad” product, this description is far too general.  “Bad” is an overworked word and not very specific in this context.  But if you wrote that the machine requires far too many repairs to meet acceptable consumer standards, this is an obvious gain in specificity.

An overly general choice of words is frequently the mark of a lazy mind. Sharpen your word selection by resorting to an unabridged dictionary and a thesaurus.  A general word will usually have many definitions to choose from to make your meaning definite.  When a shorter synonym for a word is available, use it.  Often you will find that the use of a shorter synonym for the word you are using is the best option. Use common words such as “end” instead of terminate”, “explain” rather than “elucidate,” and “use” instead of “utilize.”

Write every day to sharpen your writing skills and to gain confidence in your writing.  Also, read extensively to broaden your vocabulary and to learn how experienced writers put words and sentences together.

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rightrs reserved.

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Correct Diction Is Essential For Clear Writing Success

Many wannabe writers fail to grasp the importance of correct diction, learning how to use words properly, in achieving the goal of clear writing.  But this is a very important technique to embrace if you really want to become a good writer.  Although I have recently written on this subject, it is important enough to bear repeating.

The choice of clear and effective words is defined as diction. It covers many facets, including conciseness, which in turn encompasses finding and using the exact word.  Diction is a subject treated at length in my eBook, “The Art of Clear Writing,” available on amazon.com/kindlebooks.

Being concise in the use of words is no great secret.  Even as far back as 1733 when Ben Franklin began publishing his Poor Richard’s Almanac, it was evident that word economy played a big part in its success.  Some of Poor Richard’s sayings such as “Hunger never saw bad bread,” and “Light purse, heavy heart,” reflected Franklin’s efforts to not just economize on words but to set forth a kernel of truth for everyday guidance.  I’m sure the success of the Almanac was not just happenstance but came about largely due to Franklin’s efforts to polish everything he wrote, a subject also covered in my eBook.

Learning correct diction is closely aligned with the task of building an effective vocabulary.  The two go hand in glove.  Words are the basic building blocks in any writing and should fit together like bricks in a wall.  Properly used words should allow your sentences to flow smoothly like an unobstructed stream of water.  Acquiring correct diction is basically a two-step process. You must first acquire a workable vocabulary, then learn how to write with these words.  Nothing will make your writing come alive faster than use of the right words in the right places.  Precise word usage will elevate you in the eyes of the reader and help convince the reader that you’re an accomplished writer.

Faulty diction takes many forms.  One of the biggest pitfalls is lack of conciseness.  Leading from your longest and strongest suit is a traditional opening lead when playing bridge.  The same thought applies to writing.   Capturing the reader’s interest from the outset is most important.  Therefore, begin writing with a strong opening paragraph, appropriately captioned.  This approach will capture the reader’s attention and less likely result in reader distraction.  After getting the reader’s attention, the next challenge is to hold it.

The best way to do this is to avoid the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea. Tautology, the needless repetition of an idea in different words, is a fancy word for it, but it’s nothing more than sloppy writing.  Dense, wordy paragraphs and long, rambling, disorganized writing is certain to cause reader discontent and exasperation.  Such writing amounts to pomposity, which will turn your reader off.  Use familiar words.  Write in a    conversational and welcoming tone, not stilted or artificial.

Be attentive to every word you write.  Much of the force of your presentation will spring from its conciseness.  Use words judiciously, economically and at a level the reader can understand.  Don’t make the reader grope for a meaning – it may be an unintended meaning.  Less is usually more.  Try to accomplish this result by “squeezing” your writing until all needless words have been eliminated.  Question the need for everything that appears in your writing.  Due diligence on the issue of wordiness will put  you squarely on the road to writing concisely.

Patriotism aside, there is no finer example of  the power of  concise, effective writing than the following timeless words from the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That to  secure these rights, governments are instituted  among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

These memorable words, expressing the maximum in political sentiment in the minimum amount of space, the embodiment of   powerful but utter simplicity yet profound in their implication, earned Jefferson a well deserved lasting place in American history.  He truly was a gifted writer.

Start writing today to erase all of those self doubts you may have about writing.  If you spend 30 minutes every day writing something, you will soon see imporovement in  your writing skills.

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

 

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Confidence – The Vital Ingredient Needed For Clear Writing

The development of confidence in your writing is a theme that I’ve written about often in this blog.  But it’s important enough to bear repeating.   Without it, your writing is doomed to failure.

“I’m not a good writer!” is an all too familiar and often heard personal lament.  It’s a symptom of the writer who lacks confidence.    I heard it from a family member just recently.  For those of you who believe they fit into that category, i.e., those who don’t believe they are good writers but want to be, my eBook “The Art of Clear Writing” (available at amazon.com/kindle books) can help.  It provides an organized guide to clear writing fundamentals and sets forth down-to-earth, well-established writing guidelines and techniques that have worked for others, not hard and fast rules that must be committed to memory and followed at all costs.  Chapter I deals entirely with developing confidence in your writing.

The underlying proposition of this eBook is that clear writing is an art form – it can be learned.  Anybody can write well – but you need the desire and dedication to do it.  If you’re willing to put in the time and learn the skills, the satisfaction and rewards will come.  These guidelines and techniques are capable of being learned through application and practice, and should result in a marked improvement in your writing.  Even if writing is not your strong suit, you can still learn and significantly improve your writing ability by following the suggestions in this eBook.

As a practicing trial attorney, dealing with the exacting requirements of legal writing over the years enabled me to hone my writing ability to the point where I became an effective writer.  So, unless you are involved in circumstances that require you to write continuously, you will have to dedicate yourself to the task of writing on a virtual daily basis to achieve noticeable results.

Following the guidelines and techniques discussed in my eBook is therefore only a beginning, a light iluminating the right direction.  First, you must make up your mind that you’re going to write well. Then you must put in the time and make the effort to learn.  Practice, practice, practice your writing.  Follow the guidelines and techniques repeatedly until skill is achieved.  A now and then approach will have little effect.  Perseverance and tenacity are required, particularly if writing is not your strong suit.  This effort should remain a continuous and ongoing task.  Poet and playwright Robert Browning summed it up nicely: “Art’s long, though time is short.” (See: The Ring and the Book [1868-1869], IX, Juris Doctor Johnannes-Baptista Bottinius, as shown in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Fourteenth Ed., 1968, Little, Brown & Company (Canada) Limited,note p. 88).

Also bear in mind that writing, any writing, is a form of salesmanship, i.e., you are selling yourself.  It is a basic sales truism that people will buy from you if they trust you.  That truism applies to writing as well.  Whatever your purpose in writing may be, whether you’re applying for a job, selling a product or service, writing personal or business letters, writing a company manual, or even preparing something as basic as an inter-office memo, the reader must trust you for your writing to be successful.  Achieving this trust will depend on the respect and credibility emanating from your writing.  If the reader believes you to be a credible writer and trusts you, you’ve gone a long way toward accomplishing your primary writing goal of selling the reader on whatever you’re writing about.  Attracting that trust can be achieved only if you dedicate yourself to improving your writing skills.  If you write well, you can do well.  It’s as simple as that.

Where do you start?  Begin with a positive attitude toward what you’re doing, whether writing or speaking.  John Adams, one of our Founding Fathers and a prominent lawyer by trade, successfully argued to the jury during the Boston Massacre trial of 1790 that “facts are stubborn things” and cannot be changed no matter how strong are your passions.  Adams strongly believed in the rule of law and that the British soldiers he defended (successfully, it should  be added), who were accused of murder when they fired their muskets into an angry mob, were innocent.

Clear writing thus depends to a large extent on the power of belief, belief that comes from having confidence in your writing.  When you have that confidence, it will show – the reader can see it.  To obtain confidence you must master what can best be described as the “inner game” of writing, overcoming mental blocks to clear writing.  As with other challenges in life, you must develop the right mental attitude.  In other words, you can’t write clearly if you are nagged by anxiety and self doubt about your writing.  Persistence and determination to write well are omnipotent.  However, don’t expect to get that confidence overnight – it’s not like waving a magic wand over your writing and confidence will show up.  But it will show up if you work at it.  Just keep the faith and it will happen.

Remember, even lawyers and judges, with all their education, are still striving to improve their writing.  So, it’s not too late for you.  Like I always say, better late than never!

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

 

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If You Want To Write, Write! Also, Cy Young History Is Noted.

In today’s world of global communications, the ability to write clearly is more important than ever before. It is a requirement for anyone trying to get ahead.  Without that ability you have little chance to inform or persuade others.  Unclear writing is a waste of both time and money.  Your success will depend on how well you express yourself.

I’ve heard many people over the years lament that they can’t write.  What they really mean is that they can’t write well, but want to.  My standard reply has been, and still is, you can write well if you just try. In my eBook, “The Art of Clear Writing,” (available on amazon.com/kindlebooks, but soon to be available in print as well), I emphasize that clear writing is an art form, meaning it can be learned but you have to work at it.  The guidelines and techniques explained in my eBook have been tried and tested.  They are reliable but require dedication and practice on your part.  The result should be a marked improvement in your writing.

The starting point is to develop confidence in your ability to write well.  The secret to clear writing is practice, practice, practice.   Discipline yourself to sit down every day and just write something.  Pick a subject you know well or feel strongly about, and write it up. Pretend you’re writing a letter to yourself, to a family member, or to a good friend.  Then show your writing to someone you trust to have it critiqued.  Work on whatever areas you feel need attention, whether it’s spelling, punctuation, grammar, or anything else.  The idea is to build confidence in your writing, which can only come with increased writing experience.

Everyone likes a good story.  If the situation permits, tell a story in your writing, whether it’s about a trip you took, someone you know, or some other personal experience.    You can also learn to add sound and color to your writing to make it more interesting.  It’s all about finding the right words to make your writing come alive.  Merely stating facts without some expression of emotion will discourage a reader.

In addition to the discipline of writing every day, you should also read extensively.  Read articles and books written by experienced writers.  Train your eye to observe how they construct sentences and paragraphs.  This is learning by word association, also advocated in my eBook.  Reading will help you in many ways including the development of good grammar, the acquisition of a strong vocabulary, and learning correct punctuation.

Bear in mind that you are promoting yourself when you write.  Poor writing will lead to loss of credibility including possible loss of job opportunities and career advancement.  For businesses it will lead to reduced sales and lower profits.  Good writing sells itself.  If you learn to write clearly, it will also help the economy by adding your writing talents to the work force.

***

Who Was Cy Young Anyway?

Now that the presidential election is behind us, and as a change of pace, I thought it might be interesting to focus on another important selection process which is almost upon us, major league baseball’s annual Cy Young award.  This award is presented annually by the Baseball Writers Association of America to the pitcher in each league, American and National, who is determined to have been most deserving of it based on the winner’s pitching performance for the year.  With the award due to be presented November 14, let’s take a brief look at the background of its namesake.

Cy Young was a major league pitcher who won 511 games during his career, more than any other pitcher.  He also lost 316, more than any other pitcher.  He pitched for 21 years, from 1890 to 1911.  His real name was Denton True Young, the nickname “Cy” having been coined by an observer early in Young’s career when he saw the pitcher’s fastball break a wooden fence. The observer commented that the fence looked as if it had been hit by a cyclone, and the nickname stuck.

His career transcended both the American and National Leagues.  The teams he pitched for in the National League, the Cleveland Spiders and the St. Louis Browns, are no longer active.  The two American League teams he played for, the Boston Americans and the Cleveland Naps, are now known as the Red Sox and  Indians, respectively.

During the first three years of his career, the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate was 55 feet, 6 inches, 5 feet less than the current 60 feet, six inches, arrived at in 1893.  He won 72 games during that period.

Cy Young was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1937.  Two other pitchers, elected in 1936, were charter members:   Walter Johnson, who won 414 games for the Washington Senators from 1907 to 1927, and Christy Mathewson, who won 373 games from 1900 to 1916, primarily for John McGraw’s New York Giants.

Copyright © 2012. Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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Correct Diction Is A Sure Path To Clear Writing

Today’s blog will be my last chance to communicate with you before next Tuesday’s election.  I want to use it to emphasize a point I’ve been stressing recently, i.e., learn to write clearly as part of your contribution to the skilled work force needed to help improve the economy, as urged by Mitt Romney.

Finding and using the correct word in constructing sentences is not just a function of vocabulary building; it’s also a vital ingredient in using good grammar.  To become an accomplished writer, you must learn to avoid faulty diction, which refers to the correct choice of words.  This subject is covered in my eBook “The Art of Clear Writing,” (available on amazon.com/kindlebooks, but soon to be available in print as well).

My blog site has repeatedly stressed that good grammar can be learned by using word association, learned through extensive reading and continued practicing of your writing.   It’s an approach also espoused in my eBook.   I am living proof that this approach works, and, if it has worked for me, it can work for you.

Without regard to learning good grammar by word association, it’s also helpful to know which words to use in a given sentence and to have these words at your fingertips.  The more you can recognize how to use them, the faster your clear writing skills will improve.  In order to help move you along in this learning process, I have devoted this week’s blog to illustrating use of some of the more commonly misused and confused words which seem to cause writers problems.

One problem area is principal and principle.  These words are commonly confused.

Examples of the correct uses of principal are as follows:

Mary is the principal of the school.

The principal balance of your mortgage will be reduced with every monthly payment.

The correct uses of principle are as follows:

The principle point of his speech is not to raise taxes.

Not to allow any discrimination is a matter of principle with him.

Another troublesome area is the difference between effect (to accomplish), and affect (to influence).

For example, higher gasoline prices have a discouraging effect on driving.  But higher gasoline prices also affect everyone who drives.

Accept and except also causes problems.  Accept means to receive while except means to exclude.  Here are some illustrations:

I accept your gift with gratitude.  Your offer to buy my car is accepted.

This example uses both words to contrast their usage: Except for all the obvious shortcomings of this location, I agree with your description and accept your kind offer to sell me your business.

Also, here’s another form of except: There are exceptions to every rule.

Another set of words commonly misused is already and all ready.   The movers are already here.  In this usage the word means beforehand.  All ready means everyone is ready. The assembly is all ready to start.

Similarly, altogether and all together are often confused.  Altogether means entirely.  The committee was altogether satisfied with the report.  All together means collectively.  The committee was all together in rejecting the proposal.

Allusion and illusion are also frequently confused.  Allusion means a reference.  Your allusion to my poor habits is unacceptable to me.  His allusion to the fiscal cliff is too vague to be meaningful.

Illusion means a deceptive appearance, such as an optical illusion.  His sighting of water in the distance was just an illusion.

Further and farther are also words often and easily misused.  Farther means to a greater distance, to a greater extent.  Example:  I refuse to act any farther in this plan.  If you can’t hold up any farther, say so.  Further describes quantity or degree.  I can provide some further instances.  It’s not safe to go any further in the darkness.  I am not going to pursue my studies in literature any further. This word is usually found in the word, furthermore.

These are only a few examples.  Many more could be provided.  There is no easy way to overcome any propensity you may have to confuse these and other words.  Diligent application by extensive reading and studying of the troublesome words to learn their correct use is the best answer.

My last words for today are simply these:  Begin working on the improvement of your writing now and don’t give up on it.  Stay with it and be persistent!   Remember, persistence and determination are omnipotent.  Improvement of the economy is everyone’s responsibility.  It deserves your best effort.

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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Filed under active voice, clear writing, good diction, history, punctuation, sound sentence structure, tips for good diction, Writing Improvement