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Advice for students: Beware of thesaurus

Advice for students: Beware of thesaurus
Thesaurus

    Reading an essay from a college freshman many years ago, I came across a sentence that baffled me — it referred to “ingesting an orange.” I crossed out “ingest,” wrote “eat,” and wondered why anyone would’ve written otherwise. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that my student had very likely started with “eat,” only to cross it out and substitute a word that seemed somehow better — lofty, less plain, more imposing.

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    Since then I’ve taught many students who seek to improve their writing by using “better” words. Their revision strategies focus on replacing plain words with big, shiny ones. Such students usually rely on a thesaurus, now more available to a writer than ever before as a tool in many word-processing programs.

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    But dressing up a piece of prose with thesaurus-words tends not to work well. And here’s why: a thesaurus suggests words without explaining nuances of meaning and levels of diction. So if you choose substitute-words from a thesaurus, it’s likely that your writing will look as though you’ve done just that. The thesaurus-words are likely to look odd and awkward, or as a writer relying on Microsoft Word’s thesaurus might put it, “extraordinary and uncoordinated.” When I see that sort of strange diction in a student’s writing and ask whether a thesaurus is involved, the answer, always, is yes.

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    A thesaurus might be a helpful tool to jog a writer’s memory by calling up a familiar word that’s just out of reach. But to expand the possibilities of a writer’s vocabulary, a collegiate dictionary is a much better choice, offering explanations of the differences in meaning and use among closely related words. Here’s just one example: Merriam-Webster’s treatment of synonyms for awkward.

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    What student-writers need to realize is that it’s not ornate vocabulary or word-substitution that makes good writing. Clarity, concision, and organization are far more important in engaging and persuading a reader to find merit in what you’re saying. If you’re tempted to use the thesaurus the next time you’re working on an essay, consider what is about to happen to this sentence:

    If you’re lured to utilize the thesaurus on the subsequent occasion you’re toiling on a treatise, mull over what just transpired to this stretch.

    Michael Leddy teaches college English and blogs at Orange Crate Art.

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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