Thursday, October 23, 2014

Editing Advice: Idiolect

You're probably familiar with the concept of dialect — differences in language patterns particular to a group of people, often regional or cultural. But have you ever heard of idiolect? Your idiolect is how you speak, specifically. It's defined by all the unique ways a single person uses language.

Great writers obviously develop distinctive voices. That's why we can recognize when someone is parodying Shakespeare or Austen or Hemingway or Poe. Those writers' tones were major influences, defining the styles of their times.

All this is to say: Your readers pay attention to how you write. It may be invisible to you, but the words you use or ignore are defining you as a writer. Do you say very or rather? Is your character thin or wiry? Big or large? Do you frequently invert your syntax like Yoda? Do you go out of your way to avoid ending sentences with prepositions?

No doubt, you'll be hard pressed to recognize these idiosyncrasies in your own writing. It's one of those characteristics that's so deeply personal it often takes an outside perspective to point it out, like your gait — and it is often met with disbelief or dismissal. But there are a few ways to get an objective analysis without sending it off to someone for careful reading.

For the infographically inclined, you can copy and paste your writing into Wordle to auto-generate a word cloud of your most frequently used words. Print this out and tape it up wherever you write. Try to avoid these words if you want to make your writing more robust and lexically diverse. Start rewording and rephrasing — but only where it's suitable and subtle. (You don't want it to come across like a freshman essay. Always be sure about what words mean before you say them. Thesaurus abuse is one of the most easily recognized signs of an amateur writer.)

Wordle: editwright
A Wordle analysis of this post.

For a more detailed breakdown of your writing, use something like Word Count Tools, which will give you all sorts of information, such as your Dale–Chall readability score, detailed statistics on your composition, and options for customizing your analysis.

A Word Count Tools analysis of this post.

These sites will give you word-level information about your idiolect, but automated textual analysis doesn't fare so well at high-level, "big picture" stuff. Programs like Grammarly take shots, but they miss more often than not. Be sure you consult a professional editor for help with your overall rhetoric and to get tips for improving.

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