Think of your diction as a dial which has three settings. Setting 1 is OUT OF FOCUS, VAGUE. Setting 2 is MERELY ADEQUATE. Setting 3 is SHARP.
When you write a first draft, given how much else you have to be thinking about, it’s likely that your dial is set at 2. The goal in “revising to sharpen” is to turn it to setting 3. What you need is to go back through and make sure that each sentence, each phrase, each image, is precise . . . vivid . . . unambiguous.
Here are some steps:
1. Clarify the S-V-O relationship in each sentence.
If subject, verb, object are together and clear, your reader will likely understand your sentence without much difficulty. If one of your sentences strikes you as being fuzzy, try rebuilding it in terms of these central three components.
Revise the following sentences, drawn from Joseph Williams’ Style, for clarity. Put the real agent of the action in the subject position and use a sturdy active verb:
1. A need for a reevaluation of his condition by a doctor exists.
2. Attempts were made on the part of the engineering staff in regard to an assessment of the project.
3. There were expectations by the governing committee that their report submission would meet the deadline.
4. The rejection of the application by the dean was unexpected.
5. The performance by the police of an investigation into the affair occurred without delay.
6. A redetermination of their personnel needs is necessary before assistance from local sources can be provided.
2. Strengthen your verbs
The verb is the pulse of the sentence. If you want your prose to radiate power and energy, your main control is here. Consider going through your draft and looking just at the verbs in each of the sentences. Things to do:
Dissection of the aneurysm was carried out carefully by the surgeon. > The surgeon dissected the aneurysm carefully.
Switching to active verbs increases the energy and also cuts down on wordiness.
3. Clarify the S-V-O relationship in each sentence.
Adversely effect > impair
Find > detect
Avoid over-relying on verbs that we use all the time: is, have, seem, appear. Avoid, too, depending on the common verbs that we use for so many different purposes that they’re squishy (e.g., give, make, try). In The Story of the English Language, Mario Pei points out that the verb “run” has 829 distinct meanings, only the primary of which is to go fast. We also use it not only as a verb but as a noun and adjective as well. We’re plainly overworking this word.
A recent study has shown that in a sample of writing containing approximately 200 verbs, strong expository writers use an average of about 100 different verbs. If your verb range falls below 75 or 80, verb repetition may become noticeable, distracting, or worse, boring.
Add variety! Try using verbs like those from the “festival of verbs” on p. 88.
4. Increase the noun-to-verb ratio.
One way to add verb energy in your writing is by using proportionally more verbs. Nouns = matter. Verbs = energy. Note the verb ratio in the following paragraph from the award-winning Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek by Annie Dillard (I’ve underlined the actual verbs as well as verbs serving as participials):
I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wing-span, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul, smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. . . . And her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire.
5. Replace abstract nouns with verb forms.
In many cases there are verbs locked inside your nouns. Set them free when possible. Look in particular for –ion nouns (known as nominalizations). The following example converts them to gerunds--one step closer to verbs.
The identification and classification of the various histologic types of lymphomas are vital steps toward the introduction of new therapies and the reduction of mortality. >
Identifying and classifying the histologic types of lymphomas are vital steps toward introducing new therapies and reducing mortality.
6. Break up noun cluster and stacked modifiers.
Adult liver disease
Intra-group recognition function
Heavy beef heart mitochondria protein
A radium-containing argon ionization chamber
Normal FC receptor mediated marrow mononuclear phagocyte system
The problem with the items in the above list is that it’s hard to tell what modifies what. In the first, for example, are we talking about disease of the adult liver or liver disease in adults? And in the third item, what do you think is heavy? (beef? heart? mitochondria? protein?). If you run into a construction like this, try to unpack it so as to make the relationships clear. The final item, for example, could be rewritten as: normal function of the FC-receptor-mediated mononuclear phagocyte system in marrow.
7. Make sure of the meaning of each word.
The English language is an unbelievably rich resource. As Bill Bryson has demonstrated in The Mother Tongue, there are 450,000 words in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and 615,000 in the revised Oxford English Dictionary. And these represent only part of the total. Science and technology contribute millions more.
Granted, most of these words are specialized. But there are still 200,000 English words in common use (compare German at 184,000 and French at 100,000).
With such wealth, why do we restrict ourselves to such a narrow band of vocabulary? Why use “attractive” when there are more precisely nuanced synonyms as beguiling, ravishing, enthralling, glamorous (the list goes on)?
One sharpening move, then, can be to exercise our linguistic birthright and choose more precise words.
There is a caution, though. Because words that you don’t use often carry nuanced meanings, you must deploy them with care. Don’t just pull a new delight from your thesaurus. Check the word’s precise, denotative meaning in a dictionary.
And finally: use jargon (“the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group”) only when your purpose is to clarify, not to impress.