"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." —Mark Twain
My first semester teaching writing, I focused on diction. I wanted the students to select their words, to compose with the utmost care. I wanted my students to see language as a sort of menu, one that served the best meals in town—if only the patron took the time to truly see all that was offered. As one might expect, I taught a lot of vocabulary (OK, class, so who remembers what "felicitous" means?). My wager was that the more raw material I gave the students, the more stuff they'd have from which to choose. Makes sense, yeah?
Well, seven years later, my approach has shifted. Whereas as I once made diction the focus of my class, I now place the emphasis squarely on syntax. And here's why: I'm interested in growing forests, not trees. I want to encourage a monster of a song, not just a kick-ass solo. I want to feel the entire stretch of downward dog, not just the strain of my heels fighting for the floor. Unity. Wholeness. Coherence. Flow. They all depend on the glide, the innate pattern of natural thought. And there is nothing felicitous about the word felicitous when it arrives with a splat.
Simply put, I now focus on helping students write in the pattern of speech, on helping them (re?)learn how to speak onto the page. Once they can talk in print, I then invite them to revise like an editor, how to swap out this word for that, the concrete for the abstract, the specific for the general. So, yes, I still teach diction, but I do so as a way to improve syntax, not as end in itself. Writing is about ideas, about purpose, about starting a conversation—all which depend on the feeling and familiarity of the human voice, the rich pattern of speech. True, writing gives us the chance to choose each and every word carefully (and we should!), but more importantly, writing gives us the chance to speak well. If we want to improve student writing, we must prize fluency (the felt sense of the writer at ease on the page). We must prize the natural order of how we speak when we're on a roll.
All writing is read aloud. Or, if that is too much for you to buy, all writing is heard. All writing makes sounds, contains pitch and cadence and tone. When we rob our syntax of the language of life, do we not rob the life out of our language? Writing doesn't sing because the author got the word just right. Writing sings because he or she found the melody that let us savor the notes.