Episode 22: Dealing with a Diction


Writing is just as much about how you say something as it is what you say. Everything from the words you choose to the syntax (word order) can send messages to the reader about your attitude toward the subject matter or even the audience itself. Many times these “messages” can be unintended (much like body language can be), but the impact can be important.

For the purposes of this post, I am simply going to refer to how you say something as diction. The dictionary (pun definitely intended) often uses a much narrower definition of this word, but the implication is the same. Diction, succinctly, is the way you express yourself in your speech and in your writing (your writing being much easier to control). Keep in mind that diction is not the same as a writer’s “style” because the purpose of each article or story may require different means of expression. So, diction is situational: a white paper may require a more formal level of writing, while marketing copy might require something with way. too. many. periods. and action words (so act now).

The way that you get your message across is influenced by a number of factors, too many to list all of them here. However, we can look at some of the main ones.

Word choice: This is probably the most obvious influence on diction. If you are using a thesaurus to find bigger words for the sake of sounding smarter, then 1) stop it and 2) you are elevating the language of your writing—for good or bad. The message behind your message is that the subject matter is sophisticated and complex. This will serve you well for some formal writing projects if used carefully, but it can also make you sound stilted and aloof. The bottom line is that while word choice is the “quick fix” for raising or lowering the readability level of the writing, it is not necessarily the best way. That is, don’t simply search for and replace simple words to change the way you’re saying something. Doing that is like playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with a full orchestra: it may sound more impressive, but the song is still the same. Now, however, if you change the way the song is played . . .

Writing style: This is the better way to change your diction. Your writing style is the way in which you wrap the plot, thesis, message, etc. Elevating your writing style (using more formal language, structure, terminology) impacts the way you’re saying something much more than your word choice. For example, using or not using contractions can say quite a bit about the formality of your writing, as can ending sentences with prepositions or not and using many or few parentheticals. Changes like that may not seem like much, but just try writing an article with contractions and then without and see how great the impact can be.

Tone: I have covered this before. But let’s just say that tone plays a significant role in how you say something with the written word (just as it does with the spoken word).

As I said, there are many other factors involved, but if you pay attention to those three, you should be well on your way. Plus, this gives me room to revisit the topic later.

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