Diction Makes Essay Effective

LANGUAGE ARTS :: SECONDARY RESOURCES :: WRITING HANDBOOK :: HOW CAN I HELP MY STUDENTS MAKE EFFECTIVE WORD CHOICES IN THEIR WRITING?

When used effectively, word choice, or diction, can help make writing clear, concise, and compelling. When they learn to pay attention to diction, students see words as tools that can help ensure the reader truly understands the writer's intent.

One way to help students focus special attention on word choice is to engage them in writing assignments that are concise by their very nature. This allows students to see the effect of each individual word on the whole text. Examples of such products include greeting cards, poems, epitaphs, brief definitions, comic strips, want ads, brochures, bumper stickers, and graffiti. Students can be encouraged to write three different versions (with alternating word choices) of these brief writing assignments as they work on finding just the right combination of words to cause a particular effect on the reader. Teachers can introduce students to the concept of a word's connotations (the associations people have with a word that go beyond its literal meaning) to help them as they play with words.

Focusing on Word Choice in Longer Assignments
Students can also be encouraged to focus attention on word choice in longer pieces of writing. Sometimes students will struggle to find just the right word. They may decide to consult a dictionary or thesaurus, which can be helpful as long as they remember that they need to understand the connotations of the words they consider using. Computer programs make it easy for students to highlight a word and check the thesaurus for options.

To encourage students to think about the words they are choosing as they write, the teacher can instruct them to reread a draft of an essay and circle "lazy words" that take up space without adding meaning. Words such as "nice," "very," "really," "a lot," "pretty," "sort of," and "I think" fill space. The teacher can also help students see that some words have been so overused in so many contexts that they no longer have a specific meaning. Words such as "beautiful," "wonderful," "love," and "sad" can be vague and trite, so students can be prompted to think about word choice when a teacher asks him or her to describe what makes something "beautiful" rather than calling it "beautiful."

Example
In Sociology, students use the Ladder of Abstraction, described by Alfred Korzybski (1941), to look at the clarity of the words they have chosen for an essay written for an extended definition of the term "culture." Noden (1999) explains that the "relationship between words and the physical world follows hierarchy," so some words are more likely to evoke a visual image than others (p. 190). He gives the example of a description of Sniffer the pig. The word "Sniffer," at the bottom of the ladder, evokes an image of a pig with a wet nose that snorts, while "economic commodity," at the top of the ladder, is more abstract but evokes little if any sensory response. Students review their definition essays for key words and place them on the Ladder of Abstraction. If the ladder is too "top heavy," more specific details may be needed to support these words or students may need to revise if the abstract terms make the writing feel vague.

Example
In Automotive Service Tech I, students respond to the following cause-effect prompt: Create a how-to manual for teen drivers who want to know how they can make the engine of a new car maintain peak performance. Students are told that their language must be clear and concise in order to be effective, so they go on a "lazy word" hunt. Each time they find one of these vague or overused words they replace it with a more precise word.

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Diction refers to habitual word choices and is a consequence of background. Thus, it reveals something about the character”s past and, by implication, how he views and reacts to the present.

specialized training (work, college, professions, trades)

So important is diction in the feeling of story credibility that this may be the genesis of perhaps the oldest bit of writing advice out there: Write what you know. If you create a character so far removed from your own experiences that you cannot make him sound real, your story will never click with readers.

Does that mean you can never write about characters with whom you are unfamiliar? No. What you have to do is RESEARCH. And research in this area is a matter of listening hard and asking the right questions.

If you are going to write about a character from a setting and circumstances with which you”re not conversant, you can do a number of things: Find books dealing with your setting and time period. Visit the place. Talk to people. Let conversations flow. Tape record the people you talk to.

You can find people of any background who are willing to talk to you about their lives. And for specialized characters (trades, skills, professionals, etc.) you can find experts who will be happy to share their world. Ask them about their “lingo.” Create a glossary. The effort will be well worth it.

One of the most crucial aspects of fiction writing is that the information surrounding the story is accurate and complete.

From the Writing Effective Dialogue Workshop

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