One very common problem I encounter in student writing is “advanced diction.” This occurs when the writer uses (or attempts to use) words, concepts, or expressions that he or she is not really ready to use. Ironically enough, the writer usually attempts this in hopes of impressing a college instructor who probably does use “big words” from time-to-time. While in some cases it may be a good idea to use an expansive vocabulary in an essay, it is typically a bad idea.
If you’ve ever had the experience of writing an essay that suddenly confuses even you, then you were probably using words or working with concepts you really didn’t understand.
So, what’s the solution?
The answer to that question depends upon a number of factors – the course, the instructor, and so on. In general, I believe (and most writing teachers agree) that using an artificial diction is almost always a bad thing. Trust me: we’re quite good at identifying it in a stack of essays.
The easy answer to this problem is to avoid it in the first place:
• Don’t use words that make you uncomfortable or that you can’t define.
• Don’t use the thesaurus in your word processor to hunt down words that “sound smart.”
• Don’t write sentences that attempt to explain concepts you really don’t understand.
Here are a few things you can do to write with clear language:
• Do use simple, shorter words more often than not.
• Do write in simple, shorter sentences more often than not.
• Do use “in other words” and “that is” to clarify difficult points.
The problem of “advanced diction” is a symptom of the very arrangement between writers and readers in typical essay assignments. Allow me to explain, elaborate, and clarify…
When you’re writing an essay, part of what your teacher or professor is looking for is demonstration of knowledge. In other words, your teacher wants you to show him or her what it is that you know (especially, what you have learned in class).
Let’s use some hypothetical numbers to make more sense of this.
Suppose you’re taking a psychology course and your professor has asked you to write a paper as part of your final course grade. Your paper is due in the last few weeks of class.
Now when the class started, your professor had 100% of the knowledge related to the material covered in the class about psychology. You, on the other hand, came into the class with 0% of the knowledge.
Your professor has asked you to write an essay about “Abnormal Psychology” towards the end of the semester or term to give you an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge. By that point, you should have a number closer to 100%, though your professor will not expect you to be at the 100% level after just one class. (Remember: the instructor has been working with this material for years and years before you came along.)
What your instructor really hopes you’ll do is demonstrate knowledge of the things that you could be reasonably expected to know after 3/4 of the class is complete.
The mistake many students make in using advanced diction usually occurs in a desperate attempt to give the impression that he or she knows understands far more than he or she actually does.
Just remember that “simple is always best” and that your instructor does not expect your essay to read like an encyclopedia or a textbook.
Write with simple language and use terms you actually understand. Your professor will be much more pleased with an essay that is obviously student written than with one that tries too hard to sound like a pro.