How to Write With Good Diction to Develop Style, Tone & Point-of-View
Developing a good writing style starts with developing good diction. You can't craft an essay or story the way you want without being able to choose the right words first. Here's how.
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Using Good Diction
Diction is just a fancy way of saying ‘word choice.’ That is, when someone tells you that you have ‘good diction,’ they’re saying that you have a good vocabulary and you use it well. Having good diction is an essential part of writing well, no matter what kind of writing you’re doing. Diction is the key to developing your style, tone, and point of view.
Don’t Use Uninteresting Words
Whenever you can, try to replace boring words with more interesting (and descriptive) ones. Take this sentence:
‘James Blonde’s good plan helped him win against the bad guy.’
That gets the information across, but it doesn’t pop. Let’s target these words: ‘good,’ ‘plan,’ ‘win,’ ‘bad,’ and ‘guy.’ Instead of the adjective ‘good’ we can substitute in ‘cunning’ (which means clever), instead of the noun ‘plan’ we can say ‘strategy’ (which has a similar meaning but implies more action), instead of the verb ‘win’ we can say ‘defeat’ (which is more dramatic), and instead of ‘bad guy’ we can say ‘villain’ (which sounds more threatening and thus makes James Blonde’s victory more epic).
So what are we left with? ‘James Blonde’s cunning strategy helped him defeat the villain.’
Make just a few small changes in word choice and the sentence now has much more zip. However, that doesn’t mean you should replace 10-cent words with 10-dollar ones just because you can. That’s to say, just because a word sounds fancier (e.g. it ‘costs more’) doesn’t actually make it better. For instance, ‘James Blonde’s dexterous machinations abetted his vanquishment of his disputant’ is full of big, heady words and is also confusing and totally awful. Good diction requires you to strike a balance between the dull and wordy while still sounding natural.
Specific Details Are Better
Replacing boring words with more interesting ones is good; replacing vague words (which are usually boring, by the way) with more specific ones is even better.
‘It was a nice day. There were lots of things to do and people to see.’
Those are two boring, vague sentences. It was a ‘nice’ day, according to the author, but nice how? What things were there to do? What people are you seeing? Remove the vague words and replace with descriptive details and you’ll have a superior sentence.
‘It was a beautiful, partly sunny day. There were many sports and games to play and friends to meet.’
While this still isn’t the most exciting sentence in the world, it at least tells us something now. We know exactly what kind of nice day it was (beautiful and partly sunny), what kinds of ‘things’ the writer is looking forward to, and what people he or she is going to see. If you always favor the specific over the vague in your word choice, you’ll have won half the battle of good writing.
This is more of an editing tactic, but good style usually means varying your word choice and avoiding repetition. Consider a paragraph that reads like this:
‘One example of an awesome dinosaur is the velociraptor, while another example of an awesome dinosaur is the T-Rex. In a fight, these two dinosaurs would pretty much beat every other dinosaur, although a T-Rex would obviously beat a single velociraptor easily because of its superior size.’
Here we have ‘example’ twice, ‘awesome’ twice, and ‘dinosaur’ three times, and ‘beat’ twice. Eliminate unnecessary repetition by removing words if they don’t add anything and replacing others with synonyms to make them more interesting for the reader. Here’s what we did:
‘One example of an awe-inspiring dinosaur is the velociraptor, while another is the T-Rex. In a fight, these two beasts would pretty much beat every other prehistoric lizard, although a T-Rex would obviously defeat a single velociraptor easily because of its superior size.’
The fixed, non-repetitious version now sounds not only more interesting but has more authority.
Developing Tone & Point-of-View
You know that you want to choose interesting words and not boring ones and favor specific details over the ambiguous ones, but what words you choose also help decide what the tone of your piece is going to be. For instance, if you want to have a lighthearted tone, you wouldn’t choose a lot of serious, brooding words. Which of the following do you think is lighter?
‘The rodeo clown levitated the balls in the air, the lines of his mouth upturned into gaping smile.’
‘The rodeo clown juggled the balls, laughing as he did.’
Clearly the second sentence is much lighter. ‘Juggle’ has a light feeling, as does ‘laughing.’ Compare that to ‘levitated the balls in the air,’ which is longer, and the verb ‘levitated’ sounds like it takes a lot more effort.
The way a word makes you feel and the other things it makes you think of make up a word’s connotation , and that’s something you have to be conscious of when you’re writing. Think about the tone you want to have - whether it’s stern, upbeat, firm, professional, or personal - and then choose your words carefully based on what feeling they give the reader. In the first example sentence, the adjectives ‘upturned’ and ‘gaping’ both give the reader an uncomfortable feeling; in the second sentence, ‘laughing’ expresses nothing but joy. Both sentences describe the same action but leave the reader with completely different impressions.
Check for Confusing Words
English - tricky language that it is - has a number of words that sound similar but have slightly-to-very different meanings. When writing, make sure you’ve picked the right word for what you mean. For instance: are you effected by the zombie virus or are you affected by the zombie virus?
‘Effect,’ here, is a verb meaning ‘to bring into being’ (perhaps you were a corpse that the virus made rise from the dead), while ‘affected’ is a verb meaning ‘to influence’ - in other words, the person is asking if you’ve been influenced in any way by the zombie virus (maybe you know someone who’s infected, maybe they’re asking if you’re immune or if you’ve been bitten - it could be any number of things).
English is full of homophones - that’s two words that sound the same but have different meanings. So you have to be careful when writing and revising to make sure you’ve chosen the right word.
Except means ‘to leave out’
Accept means ‘to receive or agree to’
Compliment means ‘to praise’
Complement means ‘to complete’
Than is used to compare or connect two things
Then signals a movement forward in time (that’s one students get wrong a lot)
Confident is ‘a personality trait meaning that you feel strong or assured’
A confidant is ‘someone you trust who you tell your secrets to’
And those are just a few.
There’s more to making the right word choices than anyone can explain in a 10-minute lecture, but this should get you started on the road to good diction. Just remember to:
Avoid bland, uninteresting words.
Try to be as specific as possible; details are always better than no details.
Single out repetitive words and change them or get rid of them.
Think about the tone you want to strike and pick words that fit that tone.
Check to make sure you’ve made the right choices and all of your words mean exactly what you want them to mean.
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