How To Master Diction, Rhetoric, and Style

How To Master Diction, Rhetoric, and StyleDiction refers to precision and clarity in word choice as well as appropriate levels of usage. Make certain that every word means exactly what you intend it to mean. Eliminate ambiguity. Avoid informal, colloquial, regional, dialectical, nonstandard, archaic, and cliché expressions.

Rhetoric is the art of using language effectively. Rhetoric involves the writer’s purpose, the consideration of audience, the arrangement and organization of thought, smoothness, clarity, logic, and economy of expression.

The clearer your purpose, the better your writing is likely to be. The purposes of nonfiction writing may be classified as expressive, expository, and persuasive. These purposes are often combined in an extended piece of writing. Expressive writing emphasizes the writer’s subjective feelings and reactions. Expository writing focuses the reader’s attention on the objective world. Persuasive writing is intended to influence the reader’s attitudes and actions. Most writing is to some extent persuasive; however, it is usually called persuasive if it is clearly arguing for or against a position.

Audience and Occasion
Keep in mind the audience and the occasion for which you are writing. Your understanding of audience and occasion will determine your choice of words, examples, details, and tone. Tone is a reflection of your attitude toward your subject. It must be appropriate to your purpose, audience and occasion.

Arrangement and Organization of Thought
Thought units—whether single words, a sentence or paragraph, or longer sequences—must be orderly. You must aim for continuity in words, concepts, and thematic development from the opening statement to the conclusion so that readers (i.e., graders) will understand what you are presenting.

Continuity can be achieved in several ways. Punctuation marks contribute to continuity by showing relationships between ideas. They cue the grader to the pauses, inflections, subordination, and pacing normally heard in speech. Neither overuse nor underuse one type of punctuation, such as commas or dashes.

Continuity is also achieved through the use of transitional words. A pronoun that refers to a noun in the preceding sentence serves as a
transition and also helps avoid repetition. Other transition devices are time links (then, next, after, while, since); cause and effect links (therefore, consequently, as a result); or contrast links (however, but conversely, nevertheless, although, whereas).

Smoothness, Clarity, and Logic of Expression
Aim for clear and logical communication. Sometimes when you spend much time close to your own material, you lose objectivity and may not see certain problems, especially inferred contradictions. Avoid setting up ambiguity, inserting the unexpected, omitting the expected and suddenly shifting the topic, tense, or person. These devices can confuse or disturb graders.

Economy of Expression
Say only what needs to be said. Tighten overly long papers by eliminating redundancy, wordiness, jargon, evasiveness, circumlocution, and clumsiness. Weed out overly detailed descriptions, gratuitous embellishments, elaborations of the obvious, and irrelevant observations or asides. Use no more words than are necessary to convey the meaning. Direct, declarative sentences with simple, common words are usually best. Short words and short sentences are easier to comprehend than long ones (although variety in sentence length can be helpful for readers). Similar precautions apply to paragraph length. Single-sentence paragraphs may be abrupt. New paragraphs provide a pause for the grader – a chance to store one step in the conceptual development before beginning another. If your paragraphs run longer than a page, you are probably straining the grader’s thought span. Look for a logical place to make a break or reorganize the material.


Style is the author’s individual choice and arrangement of words, sentence structures, and ideas as well as less definable characteristics, such as rhythm and euphony. To a limited extent, style can be thought of as the written expression of a writer’s personality and quality of thought. In academic writing, personality may need to be subordinated to clarity, simplicity, orderliness, and sincerity.


  1. Write from an outline. Sometimes coming up with an outline might prove difficult. In those cases, simply write on a piece of paper whatever comes to mind regarding a topic—questions, impressions, feelings, reservations, etc. From this free-style exercise, you should note how various thoughts might be rearranged into an outline. Then write your essay from this initial outline. At this stage do not be concerned about punctuation, spelling, or diction. Then go to suggestion #2.
  2. Put the paper aside and reread it later. If you read the paper aloud, you have an even better chance of finding problems. After this, proofread the essay to correct spelling and grammar. Change sentences around as needed to make your paragraphs clearer.
  3. Get critiques from one or two colleagues.
  4. Hire professional editorial help if necessary.

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