Diction is best thought of as the style of writing, or your “written voice.” It is “the correct choice of words in terms of their meaning and the appropriate choice in terms of the audience and purpose” (Kolln 296).
We wouldn’t text or talk to our friends in the same way would would speak to a judge, say. This is because we understand that different contexts and audiences have different expectations about our language. This represents a change in diction. When we are with our friends, we don’t feel compelled to speak in an elevated way, or even be grammatically correct much of the time. At work or within other sorts of institutions like academia or journalism, we understand that our reputations hang more heavily on our ability to be professional by demonstrating acumen and speaking fluently.
Having said that, good diction is not simply a matter of using elevated language or “filling the page.” The highest maxim is to always be clear. If you can write in a colloquial way but still retain the conceptual complexity of your subject, you should feel confident in doing so. You should also be aware that professors will vary in their expectations with respect to diction. Different fields and genres also vary in their standards and conventions related to diction, so be aware of your audience.
So how do we sound professional? First, you should always work to expand your vocabulary. Being professional does not just mean you should be verbose. The point is not to be pretentious, but to be more precise with your language and expressions. Having the right words at hand will lead you to write more clearly with more economy. Here is an example from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) where wordy sentences are changed to concise ones,
Wordy: Suzie believed but could not confirm that Billy had feelings of affection for her.
Concise: Suzie assumed that Billy adored her.
You should also avoid vague words. If I say, “That is a bad movie,” you may or may not take my word for it, but my review would be more helpful if it were more specific. “Bad” is a word that confers very little information. Bad in what sense? Is it poorly plotted, is it tedious, are the effects cheesy, is the dialogue not believable? There are many places to go from “bad,” and getting to an interesting point that’s worth developing starts with an apt description. One also needs to vary their word choice. If I consistently describe a subject using the same adjective (even a good adjective), the writing will begin to seem lazy.
Diction refers not only to a variety of language but a variety of syntactic arrangement. If I write three sentences in a row that begin, “Hana did x,” (Hana walked, Hana talked, Hana claimed…), I will seem repetitive and bore my reader.
Purdue’s OWL offers 15 possible revisions of the sentence below. Observe the ways in which the rhythm and emphasis shifts in each, and how you respond to each sentence given the ways in which the information is organized.
“The biggest coincidence that day happened when David and I ended up sitting next to each other at the Super Bowl.”
Your diction is your written voice, and it is as much a part of your identity as your speaking voice, so treat it with care and attention. Determine the sorts of written voices in the world you like and regard them as influences. Broaden your vocabulary, and develop a voice that is clear and unmistakably yours.