Precise Language

Precise writing replaces vague terms for accurate nouns and active verbs. It creates a mental picture and provides clear examples.

Give clear examples.

Imprecise: Entrepreneurs use professional writing skills to communicate with others.

We understand that professional writing skills help us communicate, which assumes we are communicating with others. How does it specifically help entrepreneurs? Where or with whom do they need to use these skills?

More Precise: Entrepreneurs use professional writing skills to communicate effectively with clients and business partners.

Avoid vague terms.

Adjectives and adverbs should help define a noun or verb, and tell us more about it. But, adjectives and adverbs are often relative, ie they are meaningful in a specific context and lose meaning when we are not sure of that context.

Imprecise: Research is taught early in the academic world.

“Early” and “late” are relative terms that lack precision. Is it taught early in the morning? Is the first day early? Is the second week late? The academic world is also a vague term that includes more than the university and the 4-year plan of study most associate with it.

More Precise: Research is taught to first-year university students.

The following example uses the word “appearance” which has several meanings, including the way something looks, the act of making something available to the public, and the act of generating or creating something.

Imprecise:  Editors are responsible for the appearance of a work of literature.

We don’t know what the word means in this sentence. Editors have input on layout and design. They choose what gets published, so they are part of the creating process and the process of deciding what the public reads. We need a more precise word.

Avoid “something,” “someone,” “anything,” etc.

“Something,” “someone,” “anything,” etc. are used to avoid being specific. They are quite useful when we don’t want to give out the details, but to write precisely we have to be specific and name exactly what we are talking about.

Imprecise:  Editors make sure something is well written.

We can assume that “something” in this example is a text of some sort, since it has been written, but we need to know more. Precise writing is more specific.

Imprecise:  Editors make sure documents are well written.

Avoid abstract terms.

Abstract terms are ideas or concepts without physical referents. “Freedom,” “success,” “love,” and “humanity” are abstract terms. We know these words well, but might find it difficult to define them satisfactorily. Because they are familiar, we use abstract terms as placeholders for a more specific idea. For example, the following sentence connects language to humanity, but doesn’t truly define the link.

Imprecise:  Language is an integral aspect of humanity.

“Integral aspect” tells us that language is an important part of humanity, but it doesn’t give us any significant information. We could easily substitute another word for language and the sentence would be just as meaningful: Spirituality is the essence of humanity; Compassion is the essence of humanity; Civilization is the essence of humanity… The following sentence defines the relationship between language and humanity, describing it as a defining feature for what makes us human.

Precise:  Language is what defines us as human.

When you use abstractions, you have to be sure that you are being precise and not just using them as vague lead-ins to another idea.