What’s the difference between good writing and great writing?
What do great playwrights like William Shakespeare, great novelists like Haruki Murakami, great essayists like Virginia Woolf, great journalists like Ta-Nehisi Coates, or great poets like Emily Dickinson have in common?
These writers have mastered the art of language. In this context, “language” doesn’t refer to the words used by a culture (i.e., the French language) or technical terminology (i.e., medical language). Here, language is style — How a writer uses words, phrases, sentences, syntax, grammar, and even punctuation to express their ideas with a distinct voice.
Understanding how to properly use language can greatly enhance your writing. Here are three tips to level up your use of language:
1. Vary Your Verbs
One hallmark of great writing is variety. The best writers use synonymous words and phrases to keep their writing from being repetitive and boring (or monotonous or humdrum or wearisome).
The easiest way to level up your language variety is to vary your verbs. Instead of relying on the same simple verbs in every sentence of every paragraph of every essay, story, or poem, try using more synonyms to keep your readers engaged. Take a look at these examples:
Beware of overusing synonyms. An essay that uses viewpoint, perspective, stance, and outlook, but never uses opinion may sound pretentious (or arrogant or pompous or ostentatious). The safest way to apply a synonym is by replacing a repetitive verb.
2. Consider Connotation
With over 100,000 words in the English language, how can writers possibly know which synonyms are best for their work? Great writers know they must always consider connotation.
A denotation is the literal, dictionary definition of a word. A connotation is the idea or feeling connected to the word.
For example, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the literal definition of moist is simply “slightly or moderately wet.” However, most readers have negative associations with moist, connecting it to all things dark, cold, and slimy. Here’s another example:
The best way to learn the connotations of over 100,000 words (or the average 40,000 words that most adults know) is by reading. YGC students enrolled in the Global Education, REAL, and AEFL programs learn at least 180 new words from the assigned novel every term (that’s nearly 800 new words per year!). You can learn more about YGC’s programs here.
3. Show, Don’t Tell
According to urban legend, great author Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) once wrote: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”*1 Today, teachers, editors, and critics all demand: show, don’t tell.
Chekhov’s advice (and readers’ demands) can be distilled into two simple rules:
- Be specific.
- Be sensual.
Specific language is precise. Writers seek out the perfect word to express an emotion or describe an action. For example, the last time you were assigned an essay, did you write, frantically scrawl, or carefully compose your paragraphs? Precise nouns and exact modifiers help readers connect to what the writer is describing.
Sensual language is descriptive. Writers draw upon their five senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound) to connect with readers. This technique helps readers imagine exactly what the writer is describing.
Look at Chekhov’s counsel again: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Imagining a sparkle dancing across a shard of glass demands more involvement from the reader, drawing them deeper into the writing. Here’s another example:
As with any writing technique, moderation is key. Don’t be so flowery your thesis becomes lost in winding, convoluted tendrils of imagery, symbolism, and metaphors. Never ask your readers to overexert themselves by searching for your point.
So what? Why does leveling up your language matter? Clear, simple language is undeniably valuable. It communicates your point without wasting your time or that of your readers.
Leveled-up language is one of the final steps to becoming a great writer. It’s the difference between earning a 3 or a 5 on the Writing Tasks of the TOEFL iBT®. It can determine your acceptance or rejection to a prestigious university. It even has a place in the professional world: Great leaders are great communicators. Great writers are society’s best communicators.
The next time you write an essay, try using one (or all!) of these tips and see how they change your writing. You might even find the process more engaging than before!
We look forward to reading your essays and other great works with you at YGC. If you want to learn more about leveling up your language and studying abroad, make an appointment with YGC’s advisors by calling 03-3379-7771.