Monthly Archives: February 2013

Clear Writing Requires Use of Correct Diction

We have previously discussed the need for an effective vocabulary on this site.  But, having words at your disposal is of little use unless you know how to use them effectively.   The use of correct, clear, and effective words is defined as diction.

Words, the basic building blocks in any writing, should fit together evenly like bricks in a wall.  Properly used words should allow your sentences to flow smoothly like an unobstructed stream of water.  This will avoid having the reader stop and look back to see how your ideas “hang together.”

Learn the meaning of words that can help you; then learn how to write with them.  Nothing will make your writing come alive faster than use of the right words in the right places.  Precise word usage will help elevate you in the eyes of the reader and convince the reader that you’re an accomplished writer.

Your writing should not be complex or obtuse like many government regulations and instructions, such as those accompanying the Internal Revenue Code.  Nor should it be like reading an autopsy report – a straight-forward recitation of facts with no emotion.   On the other hand, you are not writing the great American novel either.  It’s usually inappropriate to use picturesque or flowery expressions unless you are writing fiction.  Use of the right words will help you achieve an effective balance in your writing.

Study and use a good unabridged dictionary and thesaurus.   Not only will these resources help you find and use the right words and acquire a keen eye for language, necessary steps to develop an effective vocabulary as previously covered, but they will also help you in achieving correct diction.  Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed.) is a wonderful writer’s resource that contains sections devoted to explanation of signs and symbols used in writing, basic elements of style including punctuation, capitalization, italicization and other styling conventions, documentation of sources, and forms of address.

Faulty diction takes many forms.  To write concisely and avoid major pitfalls in diction requires close attention to several areas.   In the first place, be aware of words easily confused, such as affect and effect, accept and except.  Don’t use words such as ain’t, bursted, or drownded.  Avoid dialectal phrases such as right smart,  and a ways back.

Be concise,  Avoid use of excess language.  Be attentive to every word you write.  Much of the force of your writing will spring from its conciseness.  Use words judiciously, economically, and at a level readers will 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 to eliminate all unnecessary words.  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.

 As any experienced bridge player will tell you, the traditional opening lead in playing bridge calls for leading from your longest and strongest suit.  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.  That’s where good diction comes in.  The best way to hold the reader’s attention is to avoid the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea. Keep your writing tight.  Tautology, the needless repetition of an idea in different words, is a fancy word for it, but it’s nothing more than sloppy writing, which will cause reader distraction or boredom.  Either way, you lose the reader.

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.

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.

Don’t clutter your writing with excess ideas and language.  A skilled writer will never use two words when one will do. Avoid this pitfall by eliminating superfluous words that have the same meaning.  A strong sentence should contain no unnecessary words for the same reason that a valuable painting contains no unnecessary brush strokes or a modern building contains no unnecessary beams.  Alternatively, you can distribute the ideas over several sentences.

Last, don’t shortcut sentences by inadvertently omitting necessary words.  This can happen through laziness or carelessness.

Copyright©2013.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

Leave a comment

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

Poor Spelling Is Anathema To Clear Writing

Having all of the previous clear writing tips posted on this blog in mind, one clear writing technique not to be ignored is spelling.  No matter how hard you persevere  to develop your writing and no matter  good a writer you think you are or have become, if you don’t spell correctly readers will view you as an amateur, or worse.  Therefore this point must be made abolutely clear:

ELIMINATE ALL SPELLING ERRORS!

Misspelled words will cause all of your hard work to sink – fast.  So, be forewarned!  It is absolutely imperative to make sure your spelling is correct.  Misspelled words in particular are the bane of good writing; nothing will undermine your hard work and turn a reader off faster than a misspelled word, particularly if it’s a common one.  You must take the time to check the spelling of any word that looks suspicious to you.  Resorting to a dictionary for new or difficult words should be the first and ongoing choice.

Poor spelling, like other aspects of poor writing, can be overcome.  Don’t give up on correcting your spelling because you don’t believe it matters or because you believe the problem is too big to fix.  Make it a habit to check your spelling in everything you write.  Your goal shold be to establish yourself as a good speller.

You may not become a good speller overnight but if you persist every day in fixing spelling errors you will find that, in time, a habit of correct spelling can be established.    Start by putting a question mark over every word you are unsure about, and verify the spelling before considering your writing as complete.

Many writers shortcut the correct spelling of words either because they don’t know the correct spelling or are too lazy to find out. Spelling “nite” instead of “night,” and “thru” instead of “through” is the result of careless, sloppy, or lazy writing and is disfavored in good writing.  Don’t take any shortcuts with your spelling; they will stamp you as an amateur.

Another solution is to record all misspelled words on a separate sheet of paper; the act of writing down the correct spelling should in itself help you remember it.  Keep this paper handy for continued reference and add to it on a regular basis. But don’t just write the misspelled word down mechanically –  try to understand why the word was misspelled.  Try to link the word to something that you know, something that will help you to remember it.  Understand its meaning.  Refer to the list periodically to refresh yourself on the word.  This process will help to increase your vocabulary as well as correct your spelling.  Emphasize the letters that cause the misspelling by writing them in capitals or underlining them.

You can also master the intricacies of good spelling through visualization, a widely accepted practice.  Good golfers are said to visualize each shot before hitting it.  If it works in golf, it can work in spelling.  Teach yourself to picture the correct spelling of all misspelled words in your mind.  Concentrate on the correct spelling of these words to be sure you see every letter.  Then look away, spell the word, and look back for verification.  Repeat this procedure on a regular basis until you can instantly recognize the correct spelling of each previously misspelled word.  Be careful that you are not victimized  by having your eyes play tricks on you.  It is easy to visualize an arrangement of letters that is not there.

Another recommended method to correct poor spelling is to divide words  into syllables.  This will help in the visualization process.

Also, as I have suggested in regard to developing your vocabulary and a clear writing style, read extensively.  Make a note of all new words and practice spelling them.  Use them in your writing projects when the opportunity presents itself.

Watch for misleading resemblances between words.  Be on your guard and don’t misspell a word because it resembles another word in sound or appearance.  If you misspell one of two similar appearing words, focus your attention on one of the words and learn its spelling and its use thoroughly.  “Accept” (to take) and “except” (to exclude) are similar in sound but have vastly different meanings.  “Its” is a possessive pronoun while “it’s” is a contraction of it is.    “Affect” (to influence) and “effect” (to accomplish) are also easily confused.

Finally, there are many spelling rules, too many to repeat here.  But one of the most commonly used is to write “i” before “e” except after “c.”  So,  “believe” and “field”  are typical examples of the standard spelling while  “receive” and “ceiling” show the exception.  However, there are words such as “neighbor” and “weigh” where the rule doesn’t apply at all.

For those of you interested in the Civil War, check out my two articles on amazon.com, “Antietam and Gettysburg – Two Pivotal Civil War Battles That Saved The Union,” and “Bloody Shiloh and the Rise of U.S. Grant.”

Copyright © 2013.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

Leave a comment

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

Document Appearance Is Important For Clear Writing Success

Document appearance plays an important part in developing a successful clear writing style.

Writing that appears cluttered and dense will create a negative reaction in your reader.  Work on creating well-spaced documents with ample margins.  They are visually attractive and easier to read.

Basic design decisions such as typeface selection can dramatically determine if your writing is easy to read.  Whether you are writing an advertisement, company manual, letter, essay, book report, or anything else, the appearance of the finished writing can make a big difference in its success.  If the writing has a sloppy, disorganized appearance, you are starting off with one strike against you.

Add some thoughtful design choices to your writing to enhance its readability by making it easier to read and the information easier to understand.  Poor design choices can hamper the communication success of even a well written document.  A well organized document makes the goal of clear writing easier to achieve.

While the subject of design is very broad, there are five basics to keep in mind to make your document as clear as possible:

–   Organization of writing to distinguish levels of information

–   Typography

–   Layout

–   Graphics

–   Color

They may not all apply to your document.

Organization

Organization is probably the most important appearance factor to consider.  The organization of your writing should follow the same organization contained in your outline.  This organization helps the reader understand the relationship between different levels of information.  The hierarchy in a typical document may follow this sequence:

–   Title

–   Section headings (first level)

–   Subsection headings (second level)

–    Paragraph headings (third level)

–    Text (fourth level)

Use of different typefaces in the headings to distinguish them for the reader is demonstrated by the following:

SECTION HEADINGS

Subsection Headings

Headings

Break up your writing into visually manageable pieces.   Limit the number of sections on each printed page to not more than five to six at the maximum.  The use of shorter sentences and paragraphs and grouping related items together will make it easier for your audience to understand your writing.         

Be discreet in the use of emphasis. To highlight important points, use bold or italics to focus attention on them. Use these techniques in moderation for maximum effect.  Don’t overdo it or you’ll dilute the impact.  Also, don’t put everything in capital letters or underline everything.  Overuse of this technique makes the document harder to read. 

Typography

Typeface selection may seem like a minor decision or one that you may not even consider at all.  But nevertheless it should be considered because it is one of the elements that influences the appearance and readability of your document.

There are two typeface varieties, serif and sans serif.  Serif  typefaces have small lines at the beginning or ending strokes of each letter, also more commonly known as cursive writing.  Sans serif typefaces, known as print, lack those small connective lines.  Serif fonts are easier to read than sans serif  because their small connective lines help to lead the eye more quickly and smoothly over the text.  It is best not to use sans serif  typeface for general text.  So, many newspapers and magazines use some form of serif type for their general text.  Both serifs and sans serifs work well for headings.                            

If you are writing for a predominantly senior audience, it’s preferable to use 12 point font or even larger type.

Tables and Graphics

Tables and graphics may be useful in some situations to communicate your thoughts.  They may enable a reader to grasp information faster than text by increasing clarity and cutting down on dense, block-appearing text.   Keep the design as simple as possible so that the design elements do not interfere with the clear presentation of information and the data stands out.  In other words, you should use as much of the table or graph as possible to explain the data point and as little as possible for the decoration.

Tables and graphs are often the most effective way to summarize numbers or other numerical and statistical data such as annual sales revenue for a specific number of years, market share captured by various products, market segments captured by country, operating profit per year, and other similar types of information.

A basic principle to remember in creating useful graphics is to create graphics which gives the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.

Layout and Color

The layout of your writing is another important appearance issue to consider.  Generous white space on your writing enhances readability, helps to emphasize important points, and lightens the overall look of the document.  Avoid the impulse to fill up the entire page with text.  Use a wide left or right margin to help make the document easier to read.  Dense blocks of impenetrable text are discouraging to readers.  The current trend is to use justified left, ragged right text, to make your writing easier to read.  That is, the text is aligned to the left with a ragged or uneven right edge.

Stick with a white color unless you are using a theme which justifies a different color.

I have two Civil War articles available on amazon.com/kindlebooks:  “Antietam and Gettysburg – Two Pivotal Civil War Battles That Saved the Union,” and “Bloody Shiloh and the Rise of U.S. Grant.”  They may be reviewed in part without purchase.

Copyright©2013.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

Leave a comment

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