Most Common Writing Mistakes: Why Vague Writing Is Weak Writing
Precision is the domain of the author. As the creator of our worlds and our characters, we don’t have to wallow in the quagmire of vague details and fuzzy ideas. We can make statements of authority because, if we’re not the authority in our stories, who is? Vague writing is weak writing. Take a look at the following examples:
- Maddock looked at the wall, which seemed to be smeared with spaghetti sauce.
- The bomb fell approximately ten or twelve feet away from me.
- Elle was about forty-five minutes late for her dentist appointment when a cop pulled her over, apparently for speeding.
- Mark’s figures revealed that the addition to the house would take up roughly fifty square feet.
Did you spot the ambiguities in these sentences? Every one of these examples contains words that unnecessarily weaken the author’s intensity and certainty. Let’s take another look, this time with the vague words removed:
Maddock looked at the wall, which was smeared with spaghetti sauce.
Unless you’re using “spaghetti sauce” to conceal the substance’s true identity (perhaps it’s blood, and you’ve a reason for delaying Maddock’s realization of this fact), don’t tell readers what something “seemed” like. Just tell them what it is.
The bomb fell ten feet away from me.
Does the narrating character know that the bomb is exactly ten feet away from him? Probably not. But, because readers will understand that the narrator is making an educated guess, and because readers don’t care whether the bomb is ten feet away or twelve feet away, save yourself the extra words and the unnecessary dithering.
Elle was forty-five minutes late for her dentist appointment when a cop pulled her over for speeding.
Again, it’s probably not important whether Elle was forty-four, forty-five, or forty-six minutes late. And it’s not important to let the reader know that the narrator isn’t certain the number was exactly forty-five. Similarly, unless there’s a good reason for the narrator’s having to guess why the cop pulled her over, go ahead and delete the “apparently.” Most of the time, readers don’t care about what appeared to happen, only what did happen.
Mark’s figures revealed that the addition to the house would take up fifty square feet.
Would the word “roughly” really add anything to this sentence? If the exact figure is more or less than fifty feet, and that exact figure is important to the story, go ahead and state the exact figure. If not, just round up or down to a precise number.
Occasionally, your story will demand vague phrasing for plot reasons. But, in the instances in which ambiguities aren’t necessary, save your readers from the boredom and possible confusion of the following words:
- Look as if
- More or less
- Give or take
If you are bold, precise, and definite in your choice of words, your readers will feel the power of your prose.