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

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