Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Truth of the Matter: Week 5

In the case of a personal essay, few items are technically "wrong."  You will primarily be sharing your perceptions of events in your life as they convey a basic truth or belief to you.  Therefore, what we will examine this week is your word choice and how it colors your essay.  Word choice works in two major ways in an essay:
  •  It clearly shows to what extent you feel something or to what extent we as a reader can believe something.
  •  It creates metaphors and allusions likening these perceptions to things and stories we already know.
When it comes to word choice, the easiest way to insert your beliefs regarding strength of feelings is through the choice use of adverbs, which can, by definition, tell "to what extent."  Now, some authors swear of adverbs.  In a now famous essay on writing, Elmore Leonard writes, "Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin."  Leonard, however, is discussing creative writing and not essay writing.  While using a strong verb is often more powerful than using an adverb, some adverbs can truly aid the telling of your tale through essay by establishing your credibility in your honesty of how much we ought to believe.  Was it "rather" windy, "fairly" useless, "radically" altered, or "slightly" different?  Before you choose your adverb, though, see if a synonym might not make it unnecessary.  Was it "gusty" or "breezy?" Was he "inexperienced" or "inept?" Sometimes your adverbs should stand as they are, but use the sparingly and to be honest with your reader.

Far better than the use of adverbs, however, is the use of precise, vivid verbs.  When we're talking about belief, these are the words you might use:
  • maintain, suspect, doubt, question, adopt, espouse, believe, think, assert, imply, infer, accept, admit, confess, affirm, charge, assume, presume, posit, postulate, ponder, mull over, suppose, understand, trust, waver, fear, reject, disdain, esteem, respect 
More than any single word choice, however, metaphor and allusion have the ability to sway us powerfully by drawing us into stories and experiences we have already made up our minds on.  This can be used to sway us or engage our sympathies.  From Kennedy's Camelot to the simple line "happily ever after" or "Cinderella story," we are pulled to side with someone, to draw comparisons between modern participants and the characters of the past.  The only problem with this technique is that it assumes (1) that we share the same stories; and (2) that we interpret the stories the same way.  

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