Don’t settle for approximations of your thoughts. 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 are after. 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. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Ed., p. 91, reveals “failing to reach an acceptable standard,” as the first choice for definition of 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, that you must drive through rolling pastoral countryside to get there, that it’s a living remnant of the Old West, and that it’s 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. Use common words such as “end” instead of “terminate”, “explain” rather than “elucidate,” and “use” instead of “utilize.”
In the last blog I referred to my involvement in the case where Doris Day won a large monetary award against her former attorney, Jerry Rosenthal. As I pointed out, the court found that Rosenthal had many faults in his representation of Day. Nevertheless, he had valuable writing skills.
One writing trait of Rosenthal that I still remember was his penchant – call it a phobia – for using the right word, whether in writing or speaking. Rosenthal boasted to me one day that the clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court had advised him that his framing of the issue in a petition he had written was the most clearly worded issue the clerk had ever seen. His fixation on word selection, together with his extensive vocabulary and his flair for writing, piqued my own long standing interest in that subject and caused me to focus on my writing even more readily.
The bottom line is this: take the time to find and use the right words, the precise words, to fully express your thoughts in writing. It will be well worth your time.
I have covered all of this and more in my book, “The Art of Clear Writing,” available on amazon.com/Kindle books, and in print.
Copryright © 2013. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.