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.

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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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