Failure To Use The Exact Word. Don’t settle for approximations of your thought. Imprecise words and expressions detract from clarity and may cause your reader to question all the other statements you make. Generalities will roll off a reader like water off a duck’s back. Accuracy of word usage is what you seek. The mental discipline of searching for and finding the right word will pay huge dividends for you in developing a clear writing style.
For example, writing that the XYZ machine is a bad product is far too general. “Bad” is a very overworked word and not very specific in this context. A look at Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Ed., reveals “failing to reach an acceptable standard,” as the first choice of definition for this word. Thus, writing that the XYZ machine requires far too many repairs to meet acceptable consumer standards is an obvious gain in specificity.
“Cool” is another greatly overused word in today’s society. It is often used in everyday conversation to signify the speaker’s acceptance of a thought, description, etc., uttered by another. But it has little place in formal writing.
For example, if you were to write that Murphys, California is a “cool” place to visit, the reader would have little understanding of what you mean and would have no incentive to go there. But if you wrote that it’s nestled in the farmland of the upper San Joaquin Valley and is accessible only after driving through rolling farmland countryside, that it’s a living remnant of the old West and is a shopper’s delight complete with casual dining and a nearby winery, the added specificity will make a visit sound much more inviting.
An overly general choice of words is frequently the mark of a lazy mind. Sharpen your word selection by resorting to an unabridged dictionary. A general word will usually have many definitions to choose from to make your meaning definite. When a shorter synonym for a word is available use it. Often you will find that the use of a shorter synonym for the word you are using is the best option. Common words such as “end” instead of “terminate”, “explain” rather than “elucidate”, and “use” instead of “utilize,” are better choices.
Failure To Write Concretely. Concrete words that can be seen or felt have a stronger appeal than vague words because the reader can readily come to grips with them. Be alert for vague or abstract language, the opposite of concrete, in your writing. A good writer uses detail to encourage visualization and the formation of word pictures in the reader’s mind. Stronger writing will always use definite, specific language because it will be far easier for the reader to understand a concept when the reader’s mind can form images. The following examples show how replacing abstract words with more definite ones can increase reader understanding:
Before – The ABC Fund seeks capital appreciation and, secondarily, income from investing in securities, primarily equities, that the company believes are undervalued and therefore represent basic investment value.
After – The ABC Fund strives to increase the value of your shares and also to provide income by investing in stocks that are selling for low prices based on the financial strength of the companies.
Before – No financial consideration or surrender of ABC stock will be required of shareholders of the ABC Company in return for the issuance of stock in the new company issued pursuant to the spin-off.
After – You will not have to turn in your shares of ABC Company stock or pay any money to receive your shares issued by the new XYZ Company as a result of the ABC Company’s reorganization.
Use quotations and examples from other sources where possible to avoid operating in a vacuum. An astute lawyer often uses quotations from prior decisions to drive home a point or help explain a difficult concept.
It is often desirable to create a scenario where people perform actions to help explain vague text. A study conducted at the Carnegie-Mellon University concluded that readers, when faced with complex information, often preferred scenarios to better understand the text. Thus, in explaining the use of call options to buy stock, the following example may help:
You can buy an option from Mr. Smith that gives you the right to buy 100 shares of stock X from him at $25.00 per share anytime between now and six weeks from now. You believe that X’s price will go up between now and then. He believes it will stay the same or go down. If you exercise the option before it expires, Mr. Smith must sell you 100 shares of stock X at $25.00 per share, even if the purchase price has gone up. Either way, whether you exercise your option or not, he keeps the money that you paid him for the option.
Use of this technique has often made a complex concept more understandable. Similarly, a question and answer format may succeed in place of an abstract narrative discussion.
Work on being specific and avoiding generalities. Say precisely what you mean. Although it may be impossible to eliminate all abstractions from your writing, minimize them by using concrete terms whenever possible.
Copyright 2012. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.