Thursday, January 30, 2014

Guest Post: Nikolas Baron—Choosing Carefully: The Art of Diction

Mark Twain once wrote, in a letter to George Bainton, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Those words are as true today as when the father of American literature penned them in 1888. The use of each word, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, is a choice, which should be made with careful consideration. Each word chosen by the writer is like a block in a wall. If too many weak blocks are used, or if they don’t fit together in the right way to support the weight of the structure, the entire thing collapses. Studying and emulating great writers, while taking care to avoid plagiarism, is an excellent way to learn stronger diction technique. The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between writing which sounds dull and flat, and quotable writing that endures for decades.

While the importance of strong diction cannot be overemphasized, the burden of finding the right word can be a heavy one. How does the writer choose the right word? Which is stronger, “marvelous” or “excellent”? Should a child be referred to as a “ruffian” or a “tot”? In which case is it permissible to use slang, and when should a more formal tone be considered? All of these questions can be answered only when the writer knows the answer to further questions: Who is the audience? What is the context of the writing?, and what is the purpose of the material?

The first two things the writer must consider when sitting down to create are the message, or purpose of the writing, and the audience. Writing without a clear purpose in mind is like rambling along the countryside without a map; the journey may be pleasant but the traveler is unlikely to arrive at any particular destination. The message is what the writer is communicating and audience is the recipient. The two come together to create a map for the writer to follow. Diction is the vehicle in which the traveler journeys. Whether the occasion calls for a horse and buggy or finely tuned sports car is up to the writer to decide.

Word choice is what determines the way the message will be conveyed to the reader, whether it comes with a negative connotation, or a positive spin. When writing about children for a parenting magazine, for example, words for children with neutral or positive connotations are preferable: child, toddler, kid, baby, even little angel might be acceptable. Words with negative connotations: ankle biter, brat, or urchin, would be avoided. In speaking, our audible tone of voice gives words more meaning. In writing, words must be chosen carefully, because the reader does not have the cues of body language and tone of voice to give them full meaning. The words themselves must do the work of carrying the message to the reader.

The slant of the writing is also affected by word choice. Consider these two sentences:

  • The teenager ran down the sidewalk in the pouring rain, getting wet the entire way, and stopped when he reached his own gate.
  • The young gentleman hustled along the pathway, water dripping from his expensive styled hair, pausing only when he arrived at the entrance to his abode.

Each construction conveys the same information, but the word choice creates two different pictures in the reader’s mind. The first could be the beginning of the story of an average teenager, running for home, and the second, a sophisticated youngster of a higher social class, coming back to his rightful place. The cues created by the words “teenager” and “young gentleman” build two different pictures in the reader’s mind, and the differences in “ran” and “hustled”, while subtle, are clear: Running implies a less controlled, slightly less dignified motion than “hustling”.

Choosing the right word is often as much a matter of taste and style as correctness in writing. The right word in one context would ring hollow in another. Proper diction illuminates writing with the power of lightning. Writers should never settle for the lightening bug.

By Nikolas Baron

Nikolas discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown childrens’ novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, travelling, and reading.

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