"As luck would have it, at the drop of a hat I was at my wits’ end."
What does this sentence say? Anything? Nothing? Nothing new—this sentence contains three clichés strung together. Just as you want to avoid archaic and discipline-specific language (jargon), you also want to avoid incorporating overused phrases (cliches) into your writing.
Granted, all language is reused. Unless you’re making up words, the words we use have been used before. But the wonderful thing about language is that by combining words in new ways and by giving them different contexts, you can construct a new and compelling message.
Have you ever read the first few sentences of a scholarly article and been so annoyed by the denseness of the writing? Take this line for example: “On the contrary, I proffer that the ontological necessity to determine the nature of dwelling resides within the viewer.” What does this mean? I have no idea, either. That’s because I’m not a philosopher, and “ontological” is a term that is not used very often outside of philosophical endeavors.
Perhaps the most important aspect of writing is clarity. You’re writing to communicate a message, yes? Don’t you want your message to be received? Well, writing with obscure or group-specific language will often muddle your point. Use words with which you’re familiar—and, more importantly, words with which your audience will be familiar.
An archaism refers to an out-of-style word or phrase, such as “whilst,” “thusly,” or “thou.” When cultivating your own personal writing style, it’s important that you avoid sounding artificial. And one surefire way to sound artificial is to produce stilted writing by loading your paper with old theatrical-sounding words. Here are some archaisms commonly found in student writing (ones to avoid):
- Thusly: You can use “thus” in writing, but be careful not to overuse it. Constantly repeating the word “thus” can make your writing sound unnatural. Try varying your transitional language by incorporating phrases like “as such,” “as a result,” or “in effect.” “Thusly,” however, should never be used. When have you ever heard that word used in modern-day society?
When writing an original paper, you want to ensure that your voice takes center stage. The reader should hear your voice, not the voice of a distinguished professor and not the voice of your best friend. While you want to avoid being overly conversational in most academic writing, you certainly want your voice to be driving the paper. After all, the reader wants to hear you! This section addresses the common mistakes that can cause writers to lose their voice in an essay. By reading about archaisms, jargon, and cliches, you can develop a sense of the types of rhetorical choices that distance readers.
Why should figurative language be used in engaging writing?
Figurative language makes a comparison that is not meant to be read literally; instead, figures of speech are intended to create a connection or highlight a significant part of a discussion. Certain literary devices—such as similes, metaphors, and personification—can help create word pictures for the reader. When persuasive writers use figurative language, they are more likely to engage their readers and make their argument more relevant and convincing.
You tend to use less explicit descriptions (such as clichés, qualifiers, wordy constructions, overuse of prepositional phrases, vague constructions). How might your discussion be more precise and engaging? How might your revise this sentence to make it clearer, more active, more convincing, and more connected to other sentences or ideas?
These questions touch on one of the foundations of effective writing—clarity. Excessive wordiness (often caused by passive constructions) can confuse readers and require them to spend more time trying to understand your sentences rather than your ideas.
How might you engage your reader by incorporating more figurative language (anecdote, narrative, simile, metaphor, dialogue, personification and such)? How might you offer more valid comparisons using these techniques?
“All the world’s a stage”—have you ever wondered why people remember and quote lines from Shakespeare so much? One of the reasons is because he used figurative language very effectively in his writings. You may have heard the term “figurative language” before, and perhaps when you heard it you were in a class analyzing novels or poetry. But figurative language is not just used in literature: you can employ it in your essay writing to great effect. Figurative language adds color to your writing by taking your words and applying them to other, often unexpected, objects or concepts.
Why should unnecessary words and phrases be eliminated?
Unnecessary words and phrases result in redundancy. A writer can achieve efficiency in writing by using concise words and phrases that denote clear meaning. Each word should contribute to the argument and purpose of an assignment; if a word or phrase can be removed from a sentence without affecting its meaning, it should be eliminated.
Provide the details readers need to follow your message.
Teachers and readers abhor vagueness. If you say, "Research suggests that drinking grape juice lowers cholesterol," they'll ask, "What research? How was the research conducted? Who conducted the research? Did the results appear in a credible source?"
When writing, you may use words or phrases that convey rich meaning to you. A word like "stuff" or "thing" can encapsulate other words, stories, and events in your mind, but in your readers' mind the words can mean something altogether different.
Why is it important to use appropriate academic language?
The words writers choose reflect the formality or informality of the rhetorical situation. Academic writing often calls for the use of formal diction, in contrast to the less formal language of everyday conversation. The use of conversational language and informal tone—writing as we speak—in academic papers is often too casual and may weaken the credibility of the writer. On the other hand, the use of language that is pompous or stuffy can make the writing sound overly complex. Utilizing language appropriate to the academic context can help to create balanced communication between writer and reader.
What is transitional language?
Transitional language includes words, phrases, and sentences that writers use to help their readers make connections; new information is linked to previously stated material through the effective use of transitions.
While the writer may understand how the ideas between sentences or paragraphs are related, the reader may not perceive the same sense of clarity. When used effectively, transitions help the reader to understand the relationship between the writer’s ideas.
"Exercise: Figurative Language" was contributed by Allison Wise.
Examine a famous speech or essay (political pieces and sermons work particularly well, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” would make a good choice). Make note of all the examples of figurative language, identifying which type of figurative language they are.
Conciseness Improves Flow
Unfortunately, many writers use sentences that are too wordy. This is not to suggest that lengthy sentences can never be used (because they certainly can), but most of the time writers make the mistake of using more words than necessary to get their message across. Take this sentence, for example:
- “Michelle was supposed to have her car’s oil changed every 3,000 miles, and since it had been 3,000 miles since her last oil change, she took her car to the mechanic.”
What are homonyms?
Homonyms are words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings, such as pair, pare, and pear. Choosing the wrong word from among two or more homonyms results in a spelling error; this inaccuracy creates confusion in the mind of the reader and temporarily interrupts the flow of the passage.
Why should abstract terms be replaced with concrete, sensory terms?
The goal of a writer is to communicate ideas clearly. Since language that refers to intangible or immeasurable qualities can obscure meaning, abstract terms should be replaced with concrete terms. Language that connects with tangible and sensory (taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound) is easier for readers to understand and relate to.
Why is it important to use language that is sensitive to the target audience?
When writers use language that implies a biased or judgmental attitude, the audience may take offense and be less apt to listen to the writer’s argument. Language that is insensitive to gender, ethnicity, or disability should be avoided. Just as writers hope their audience will be willing to respect their point of view, they need to respect the diversity of a broad base of readers.
Why is it important to choose appropriate words?
The words writers choose are shaped (and sometimes limited) by the rhetorical situation—the audience, purpose, context, genre, and media of a piece of writing.
Skillful writers choose words that create a pleasing sense of harmony between the boundaries set by the rhetorical situation and their own style of writing.
Write sentence-long, paragraph-long, or extended definitions.
We routinely define new concepts, terms, activities, research methods, and research findings. Our definitions may be limited to a sentence or they may extend to whole paragraphs, passages, essays, or books.
Enable readers to visualize your message by appealing to the five senses and using specific details.
Description is an important feature of all writing genres. Writers use description to support arguments and illustrate concepts and theories. They try to invoke mental pictures of a place so readers can imagine it in their minds.
Use metalanguage to help your readers understand your organization and reasoning. Clarify logical relationships, temporal relationships, and spatial relationships by using metalanguage.
The term "metalanguage" refers to language that helps writers explain relationships between ideas or words that explain how texts are presented. Phrases like "for example," "as a result," and "therefore" are examples of metalanguage.
Be concise. Once you have written a solid draft, a document that has been well researched, take a step back and question whether or not you can delete half of the words. In a world where billions of instant messages and emails are sent daily, brevity is a virtue. People love conciseness. They respect writers and leaders who can explain difficult matters simply.