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Online Guide to Writing and Research

Thinking Strategies and Writing Patterns

A Word About Style, Voice, and Tone

Style Through Vocabulary and Diction

Knowing a lot of words is important, but just as important is knowing how to use them. 

The body of words you know and understand is called “vocabulary.” The practice of choosing how to use those words is called “diction.” Both are important, but in different ways. Vocabulary is important as a body of knowledge. Diction is important as an activity you practice.

Vocabulary

Diction

When you write, you make choices—about which words to use, about the order in which you will use them. We call these choices “diction.” These choices are consequential, especially for tone and voice. However, diction is also consequential for clear, nuanced, and complex exploration of ideas.

Consider the following two statements, both from a current college student:

  • The film was quite good.

  • The filmmakers superbly introduced their story and characters, and despite a three-hour runtime, the film never dragged on, which was in part due to stunning visuals, solid acting, and a soul-wrenching score.

Both statements communicate a positive opinion. Both are reasonably formal in tone. However, notice how vague the first statement is. “Quite good” could have any number of unstated meanings. The goodness of the film remains a mystery. Improved diction helped unpack “quite good” for the reader. 

Notice in contrast the precise language of the second example. We now know what the writer appreciated about the film. Notice also the vivid adjectives: “stunning,” “solid,” and “soul-wrenching.” These draw the reader into how the author feels about the film. Finally, notice how the author uses categories specific to popular film criticism: “dragged on” (i.e. pacing), “visuals,” “acting,” Competent diction provides complexity and clarity.

Formal Writing Habits

Vocabulary and Diction in the Classroom

EXAMPLE ONE:

Most defects are bad but some are worse than others. Software developers have to know how to identify the defects that will cause the biggest problems and correct these first. This is not rocket science—people just have to discipline themselves to look for errors as they occur. Technical managers also have to know how to keep track of the defects (through some of the ways we discussed in class). They also have to know how to make decisions based on their findings and tracings.

EXAMPLE TWO:

Not all defects in software products are created equal, and not all have the same effects on the shipment decisions that a technical manager must make. When a project manager or software development team tracks the severity levels of problems in the code, shipment decisions become easier. Severity levels can be established as part of the plan for testing the product, which generally includes function testing as well as integrated system testing. Severity levels may be set, for example, on a scale of 1 to 4, where Sev1 errors cause the program to abort, Sev2 errors impede user progress, Sev3 errors cause a particular function not to work, and Sev4 errors represent cosmetic changes that will make the software better but will not have any of the effects of the other three severity types. Using the severity system of classification and an automated tracking system, technical managers have the data they need to make important decisions about whether to ship a product. For example, a product with three Sev4 errors remaining in it will probably be shipped, whereas one with four Sev1 errors will not.

Note that even though the first writer understands some basic principles from the technical management course, Example 1 lacks the vocabulary to express knowledge from the course. The writer compensates by using vague terms to establish criteria, such as bad and worse, and falls back on clichés, such as rocket science. 

The second writer has mastered the special words needed to express the concepts taught in the course and to draw conclusions from what the professor has taught. The writing in Example 2 is clear, focused, and avoids clichés. The style and tone are also appropriate.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Discipline-specific vocabularies are important to learn, and when you write a paper, your professor will be looking for you to demonstrate that you can, if necessary, put these words to use.
  • Ask yourself, “What precise words express what I want to communicate?”


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