One of the most sought after skills by employers is the ability to communicate well, especially virtually and in writing. For example, Quintessential Careers’ experts, Dr. Randall S. Hansen and Dr. Katharine Hansen, stated that the top skill sought by employers is “by far …the ability to listen, write, and speak effectively” (2013). The reasons are obvious if you consider the need to market yourself effectively in today’s difficult economy and to demonstrate on the job that you can negotiate with clients, that you are a team player, that you can analyze and articulate problems and solutions, and other such activities. Increasingly, this written communication must be done online via email, multimedia presentations (e.g., PowerPoint), and other such digital formats. Therefore, this sought after skill is frequently broken down into different aspects of online, written communication.
Your online college courses will require similar electronic writing skills as you complete classroom discussions, email your professors and classmates, and complete assignments. Although there are more aspects to being an effective e-writer (See, for example, “4 Tips for Writing Effective Discussion Posts,” 5 November, 2012), there is one area that people often cite and perhaps almost as frequently demonstrate as a weakness: diction.
‘Diction is basically the choices writers make when expressing themselves to achieve a certain effect on readers. For instance, within your online classes, you probably want to be perceived as intelligent and confident. Therefore, you will probably seek to make word choices involving the correct usage of terms specific to the course topic or your field of study. Nursing students may use terms, such as ‘ambulatory’ instead of ‘walking,’ and an education student may choose to discuss ‘pedagogy’ instead of ‘teaching.’ Students would also seek to use appropriate grammar and mechanics. Few would deliberately misspell ‘ambulatory’ or ‘pedagogy,’ for example. The same holds true as students become graduates and start their careers.
Because good communication skills are so important to your academic and professional life, it is vital to fully utilize your online classes to practice and build your diction. Here are three tips to get you started.
#1: Learn from Revision
The use of a computer makes writing easier in a lot of ways. For some, keyboarding is more comfortable than holding a pen or pencil, and the typed word automatically looks nice and professional when compared to most handwriting. There are also all sorts of supportive tricks: copying and pasting to move sentences and paragraphs around for greater clarity; automatic text wrapping at the end of a line; and, of course, spell/grammar check.
The difficulty here is that even the best typists tend to make certain mistakes when using the keyboard. This may make your use of diction seem less skilled than it really is. Here are some common typing errors and examples:
• Wrong words: Typing “defiantly” instead of “definitely.” Imagine sending an email reply to your boss who has notified you of a meeting that you will “defiantly be there.”
• Repeating words: Whatever the explanation, for many people, the brain tends to keep repeating the same word when typing. Repeating words can be very annoying to readers. Repeating words also limits your expression and communication with your audience. (Reread this bulleted point for an example.)
• Missing letters/words/punctuation: It’s also easy, especially when typing quickly within an online context that people believe is always informal, to leave off letters, words, or punctuation. Are writers suppose to leave off the final –d in ‘supposed’? Typos such as these can make writers seem less intelligent and capable than they really are.
• Hitting the wrong key: Sometimes writers will push down between two keys and type the wrong letter. Also, our fingers may move at different speeds, causing words to be misspelled. There is a big difference between telling a client you have “now” received his letter and accidentally typing that you have “not” received his letter.
• Holding the shift or space keys too long: This capitalizes letters that should be lower case or adds extra spaces between letters, perhaps leaving words unintentionally separated. Watch for those squiggly lines that tell you errors may exist.
• Allowing spell/grammar check to boss you around: Some writers assume that spell and grammar checks are always correct. However, they are only right about one-half of the time. An open position for a certified nursing assistant (CNA) will typically receive applications from individuals who are interested in becoming a “CAN.”
Knowing that these issues occur, the first step to strengthening your diction online is to become more aware of what you have actually written and the errors you typically make. It’s fine to type out your thoughts first so that you don’t forget them; however, take advantage of the opportunity to use your online classes to practice revising and editing specifically for tendencies such as those listed above. Doing so will help you become more aware of your diction and make your written communication more effective for the audience.
#2: Learn from Imitating
The second way you can improve your vocabulary in your online classes is to imitate the academic and professional diction used in your courses. Consider these three main resources within every course:
• Course materials, such as textbooks, directions, and multimedia presentations were written, revised, and edited by professionals who hold academic credentials. As you read through these materials or watch presentations, pay close attention to how the authors used diction. What word choices did they make? Did they choose specific, concrete terms rather than abstract ones? Are there words you don’t understand that you could jot down, look up the meaning, and practice using?
• Your professors are professionals with academic credentials, so pay attention not only to what they write, but also how their ideas are expressed. Consider what words your instructors use that affect you as an audience. Which ones seem especially influential to you? Can you imitate their word choices in your own writing?
• Other students often come to online courses with life and work experience. More than one-half have also completed some sort of postsecondary education. Seize the opportunity to learn by studying how these individuals express themselves. What words do they use? What ones help you express your thoughts and ideas most effectively?
Within your online classes and completing the normal activities you must do anyway to succeed as a student, there are opportunities to improve your diction that you should take full advantage of while you can.
#3: Learn from Precision
As you move through learning to revise and edit your own writing and imitating the diction of others, start to think about precision. Basically this means to find the exact term that expresses your idea most accurately and appropriately for your readers. As these tips from Bobby Hawthorne, author of The Radical Writer suggest:
• When you have a choice among words, choose the one with the narrowest meaning.
• Use words you understand. Express. Don’t try to impress.
• Be consistent with tone.
• Write with your ear. Listen to the sound of each sentence, paragraph. (2013)
Consulting a thesaurus, such as the one built into the composing software you’re using (e.g., Microsoft Word) can be helpful in focusing your vocabulary on a target word that precisely expresses your idea.
Given the importance of having good written communication skills, especially electronically, you must take advantage of every opportunity your education affords to improve your diction. These three tips are a great way to begin.
Do you have some additional tips for improving your diction? Please share them in the “Comments” area below.
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