Word choice (also referred to as diction) is important in strong writing and clear communication. Many words in English have the same or similar meaning, but subtle shades of difference between them can affect tone and clarity. As a result, it is important to think about your word choice carefully and consider how your reader may respond to a particular word and its shades of meaning. It is generally a good rule of thumb to use more formal diction in writing and to leave out the slang and fillers that sometimes find their way into our oral communication.
Some people write as though the higher the word count, the better the writing. This is not always the case. Good writers know how to be concise; that, is they know how to get their point across using an economy of words. Often, when writing papers for school assignments and trying to hit that magic 500 word count or whatever it is, students will stick in “fluff” to pad the word count. What they are putting in does not add to their message, it does not augment their argument, it just builds the word count.
Effective writers write concisely. They choose the best words to deliver their message and they leave out the fluff. This does not mean that sentences are short or choppy or that ideas are not well-developed. It means that they carefully select their sentence construction and their word choice so that every word serves a purpose and adds meaning to the overall message. Consider: what is the simplest way to get your message across? That way will also be the most clear to your reader. This may also include combining sentences to improve clarity of meaning. With conciseness, your goal is to take out everything that is redundant, does not advance your argument, or does not contribute to the main idea.
Using precise word choice is another important tool in writing. Because there are so many similar words, it is important to make sure that you are using the right one, the one that delivers the meaning you intend and that, working together, all of the words convey the message you intend. Take, for example, the verb said. Said is a fine verb. It gives the reader the sense that something is being spoken by someone, but it doesn’t have a lot of oomph and its connotation doesn’t help to paint a very vivid picture for the reader.
“‘I’m scared,’ John said.”
But look at what happens when you substitute another verb with similar meaning:
“‘I’m scared,’ John whispered.”
“‘I’m scared,’ John gulped.”
These more precise verbs give the reader a much more vivid image than when he just “said” those words. This is what is meant by precision.
Verbs are the easiest to make precise, but you can also consider precision when using adjectives, adverbs, and other modifiers.
Speaking of modifiers, it is also important that they be used and placed with precision. Consider:
“Alex saw a pack of coyotes on the way to school.”
Hmmm…the coyotes were on their way to school? This is an example of a misplaced modifier. To create precision (and not have anyone misunderstand who was headed where), the sentence would be better written as:
“On his way to school, Alex saw a pack of coyotes.”
In this sentence, it is more clear about who is doing what. This is why precision is important. Word choice and word placement should not be left to chance.
In persuasive writing, it is not enough just to state your opinion and hope that your reader will feel the same way about the topic. The most effective way to persuade a reader is to use evidence throughout your writing that will help to convince him or her to interpret the facts of a situation in the same way you do. Use a variety of evidence that will support your position and your argument.
Evidence can be facts or statistics as well personal anecdotes of relevant experiences that help to support your claim. Restating or repeating your position will not convince anyone of anything, but providing evidence and support for your claim may change a reader’s mind and may get them on your side of the argument. The more evidence and support you use, the more convincing and solid your argument. And remember, it’s not enough just to stick evidence in; it must be explained as to why it’s there and what it means in support of your claim.
Rhetoric is the use of language to persuade an audience to believe or accept something they might not otherwise be willing to believe or accept. It is language used to “convince” an audience. To be most effective, writers must consider their audience carefully and choose their rhetoric accordingly. Rhetoric is commonly divided into three categories and it is when these three work together harmoniously that the most effective persuasion takes place. The three categories of rhetoric are: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
Ethos is the credibility a writer brings to a subject. If you are trying to convince a reader or audience of something, you must give them a reason to trust you and believe what you have to say. What right have you to tell them about the dangers of drinking and driving? Well, maybe you’ve had a friend or family member who has been the victim of a drunk driving accident. It gives you credibility if you share your personal story and use it as evidence to help support your claim. You might have studied a particular subject or done extensive research on a particular topic. These experiences all give you credibility to act as an “expert” in talking about a certain idea and help convince an audience to seriously consider what you have to say about it.
Pathos is the emotional reaction you elicit from an audience based on your word choice and sentence structure. Effective writers can lead their readers to feel strongly in response to a topic simply by being aware of what the audience cares about and what biases they may bring to the table. Pathos can elicit feelings of anger, frustration, guilt, sadness, motivation, or inspiration which a writer can then transform to encourage the audience to take action and do something about the issue. Pathos can be very powerful because it moves people from a deep place within.
Logos is the reasonable, rational evidence you give to support a claim. Logos appeals to a reasonable person’s sense of logic. Facts, statistics, and scientific findings tend to appeal to a person’s sense of logic and reason. Logos are the arguments made that would cause a reader to nod in agreement and think, “Yes! That makes perfect sense!”
Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher credited with naming and explaining rhetoric, claims that rhetoric is most effective when all three of these types are used together. Knowing your audience and remembering your purpose will help you figure out an appropriate balance among them.
Because our brains work faster than our pens can ever write or our fingers ever type, writers are bound to make a few mistakes here and there. This is why proofreading your writing is so important. Here are some of the easiest things to look for when you reread your writing and things to keep in mind before you even start.
Review your basic spelling rules. There is nothing more telling of a writer who did not take time to proofread his/her work than misspelled words that are obvious and should have been easily caught and corrected. It is easy to confuse some words, so double-check your work by inserting a synonym to see if it makes sense in the context in which you are trying to use it. If it does not, you may have selected the wrong word. Don’t try to impress with high-level diction if you aren’t 100% sure that you know how to correctly use the word and that it is an appropriate choice for where and how you are trying to use it.
Review basic punctuation guidelines. One of the most common mistakes is overusing commas. Remember, commas create a pause. Make sure you really want to slow the reader down at that point before you insert one. Keep question marks and exclamation points to a minimum. Make an impact with your words more so than your punctuation. And watch out for random apostrophes (’) stuck in places they don’t belong. Apostrophes are used in contractions and to show possession (but not with “it”); they do not make a word plural. For example, the plural of pet is pets not pet’s.
Make sure to apply all accepted rules of capitalization. That would include the first letter of the first word in a new sentence, the first word in a quote, the first word in a document, all proper nouns, and the pronoun I.
Agreement in writing just means that the correct verb or pronoun form is used in a sentence. For example, if a noun is plural, the verb is plural; if the antecedent is female and singular, the pronoun is female and singular; if the subject uses first person, the verb must also be in first person. Basically it means that all of the parts in the sentence are working together in a way that is grammatically correct.
Subject and verbs must agree in number and in person. Agreement in number means that if a subject is singular, the verb must be singular; if the subject is plural, the verb must be plural.
“Molly swims every morning.”
“Molly and Jane swim every morning.”
Agreement in person means that a subject that uses first person must also have a verb in first person. The same is true for second and third person forms.
“I am hungry.”
“You are hungry.”
“He is hungry.”
Included in this agreement list is also pronoun-antecedent agreement. Pronouns must agree with their antecedents in number and person.
“Sally walked her dog around the block.”
“Jack and Jill worked on their project after school.”
Verb tense indicates the time in which an action took place (past, present, future). It can be confusing if the time shifts mid-sentence so be careful that there is agreement in verb tense. For example:
“The sky darkened, the thunder clapped, and the rain begins to fall.”
In this sentence, we have two verbs in the past tense and then one in the present, which doesn’t agree.
“The sky darkened, the thunder clapped, and the rain began to fall.”
Now all of the verbs are in the past tense and they all agree.
The most common agreement errors are made by people who have misunderstood or misidentified some part(s) of a sentence. Remember that singular nouns joined by an and make a plural subject, but those linked by or remain singular.
“Her book and her pencil were taken to school.”
“Either her book or her pencil was taken to school.”
When each or every precedes two or more singular nouns joined by an and, the nouns remain singular.
“Each book, pencil, paper, and note was taken to school.”