Diction, voice, tone, style: the elements of writing. For many of you, we know, sitting down to that blank page can be intimidating, and even talking about terms like “diction” can make you glaze over. But your style—the clarity and readability of your writing—is fundamental to how you communicate.
Some of you may fret that your vocabulary won’t be advanced enough to dazzle the adcom. Some of you might be used to writing in a very technical style (or not writing at all). For others, English is not your first language, and you feel uncertain about expressing yourself in it.
All of this anxiety leads some people to write in a formal, stilted style. You might recognize the markers: passive sentences; long, convoluted clauses; repetitive constructions. This artificially formal style tends to be impersonal, passive, and indirect. It hides your voice, and can be difficult, obscure, or even boring to read.
What’s the solution? Focus on fundamentals. Your goal is to communicate—writing is the medium. So work on communicating clearly.
- Don’t worry about using the fanciest or biggest words—use words that you know the meanings of and know how to use. (I always told my composition students never to use a thesaurus in isolation: it’s a great tool for finding words, but you’d better make sure you know their connotations and how to use them.)
- At the same time, do try to vary your word choice, along with your sentence structure. Choose strong, active verbs.
- In a personal statement or statement of purpose, try to find a tone that’s a compromise between formality and informality. You’re not writing a casual email, but you’re also not writing an impersonal, technical document.
- You want your essay to sound like you. It’s your voice presented in a polished, refined way—because writing is different from speaking. But your voice should be there, and be clear.
- Avoid passive sentence constructions. They hide the action in your sentences, and invite repetitive phrasing and wordiness.
- Keep your reader in mind—writing clearly is a courtesy to the people who will read your essay.
- Always aim for clarity and conciseness.
One way to recognize and fix passive constructions in your writing is to use Richard Lanham’s “Paramedic Method”:
The Paramedic Method
(from Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose)
Here’s how it works:
1. Circle the prepositions.
2. Circle the “to be” forms.
3. Ask, “Where’s the action?”
4. Put this action in a simple active verb.
5. Start fast! No windups!
I think that all I can usefully say on this point is that in the normal course of their professional activities social anthropologists are usually concerned with the third of these alternatives, while the other two levels are treated as raw data for analysis.
Social anthropologists usually concentrate on the third alternative, treating the other two as raw data.
(You can find more sentences to practice on at uwc.ucf.edu, the Writing Center of the University of Central Florida.)
By Dr. Rebecca Blustein, author of Financing Your Future: Winning Fellowships, Scholarships and Awards for Grad School, Rebecca is available to help you write clear essays and personal statements that communicate and persuade.