By reading a wide variety of authors and various types of writing you can build up your vocabulary and acquire the necessary skill in the proper use of words, phrases and idioms. Consciously or subconsciously, while reading, you develop an ear for what is right and what is wrong. Another indispensable aid is dictionaries and reference books; the student should develop the habit of checking usage with the help of dictionaries that give definitions and peculiarities of usage in English.
Besides dictionaries there is a great variety of reference books where one can find information on synonyms, antonyms, idioms, proverbs, literary quotations and so on. The recommendations which follow, together with dictionaries and reference books, will help the student to improve his style in writing.
Below are the general recommendations we would offer to follow in writing:
1. Use concrete words.
A "general" word expresses a general notion which may be made more specific. Thus for example walk is a general word for the following sequence of specific verbs: stroll, stagger, stride, shuffle, trot, plod, etc. Each verb in this sequence denotes a specific mode of walking. In writing, whenever possible, use a specific word, as it gives a clearer idea of what you want to say.
Specific, concrete words are picture-making words; they are more likely to touch the reader's imagination, whereas general words are usually neutral. Thus, for example, the sentence The man was attacked with a deadly weapon sounds ineffectual, as it contains two general words. A much more vivid picture is given by the following combinations: stabbed with a knife; shot dead, slashed with a razor blade.
When choosing a verb, one should remember that verbs in constant use, such as be, go, feel, have, become, etc., have lost much of their power and are apt to weaken one's style, especially in descriptive and narrative passages. A composition can be considered highly improved by replacing overworked verbs with more forceful ones. Here are some examples.
→ Black smoke was coming out of the engine.
→ Flames were reaching the petrol tanks.
→ Black smoke belched out of the rear of the engine.
→ Flames licked the petrol tanks.
Students with a limited vocabulary often use a combination of a neutral general verb with a qualifying adverb where a single specific verb would have been more effective.
e. g. He ran quickly. — He rushed/dashed.; She was breathing heavily. — She was panting.
2. Avoid overused adjectives and adverbs.
Overused, and therefore, weak adverbs and adjectives such as very, pretty, rather, little, good, nice, hard, impair your style. Compare the following examples.
The book is bad. - The book is boring/badly written.
What a good design! - What a clever/ingenious design!
3. Do not mix different degrees of formality.
One of the grave mistakes which students are apt to make consists in using colloquial or even slangy expressions in neutral-formal style as in the following:
a. The Cabinet meets for a few hours twice a week during parliamentary sittings, and a bit less frequently when Parliament is not sitting. (Neutral rather should be used.)
b. It is the duty of the Prime Minister to keep an eye on the departments. (Formal supervise would be more appropriate.)
Slang is defined as "words and phrases in common colloquial use", but generally considered in some or all of their senses to be outside of Standard English. As such it is usually inappropriate in formal writing.
One can occasionally use it with a special purpose, for example in a speech portrayal of a character, but this should be done with great discretion. The treacherous thing about slang is that it changes with time and circumstances, each period and group of people having its own slang, so that it is quite easy to make the mistake of using it anachronistically. For example it would be inappropriate, writing an essay on Tom Jones, to use the slang of today, and doubly Inappropriate to use the slang of Jim Holden, because it is American.
Students who have learnt to avoid using slang may go to the other extreme and feel that a simple and direct style is not good enough for important ideas. They may tend to use stilted, bookish words and phrases, e. g.
a) He told me what to do and I accomplished the operation (instead of the simple and direct / did it).
b) She had taken it for granted that I would give assent to her project (instead of agree. Cf. The queen has to give her assent to bills before they can become law where 'give assent' is appropriate).
The current trend in English writing is to explain even difficult subjects in clear and simple language.
4. Use idioms with care.
Idioms, like words, differ in their stylistic value: some of them are colloquial, others slangy, or even vulgar, and therefore inappropriate in formal writing. The stylistic function of idioms is to make writing more expressive, emphatic and vivid, and, often, more concise. Brevity is achieved because idiom is a kind of code known to everybody, so that even a modified idiom evokes the whole situation, as in the following example: He counted his chickens too soon. The meaning is clear to those that know the proverb Never count your chickens before they are hatched. Idioms should be used like a pinch of salt, or a sprinkle of pepper — overdo it, and the whole will be spoilt. They're kind of help for essay writing, teachers and professors are highly appreciate idioms in students' essays.5. Make wider use of verbs with postpositives.