Most Common Writing Mistakes: Why Vague Writing Is Weak Writing

most common writing mistakes vague writingVague writing is weak writing. Precision is the domain of the skilled and confident author.

As the creator of your worlds and your characters, you will always have the ability to make statements of authority in your writing. After all, if you’re not the authority in your stories, who is? What this means is that you never need to wallow in the quagmire of vague details and fuzzy ideas.

What Vague Writing Looks Like

Take a look at the following examples of vague writing:

  • 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.

How to Fix Vague Writing

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 the bomb is exactly ten feet away from her? Probably not. But, because readers will understand 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. Neither is it important to inform readers 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.

10 Words That Signal Vague Writing

Occasionally, your story will demand vague phrasing for plot reasons. But when ambiguities aren’t necessary, you can save your readers from boredom and possible confusion by avoiding the following words:

  • Seem
  • Approximately
  • About
  • Appear
  • Look as if
  • Roughly
  • More or less
  • Give or take
  • Almost
  • Nearly

If you are bold, precise, and definite in your choice of words, your readers will feel the power of your prose.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What words and phrases do you feel contribute to unnecessarily vague writing? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Hi K.M.

    Often, my first draft contains many of the vague words or phrases that you’ve cited. They are easy to spot and remove during editing. I agree that they do weaken writing. So the question is: Why do I use them in the first place? I haven’t come up with an answer to that question yet, so editing before posting is a must.

    I’ve just subscribed to your podcasts on iTunes. I have enjoyed listening to them when I visit your site, but I think that I will get to listen to them more often now that they are delivered to my iPod.

    Ray

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. It seems like you appear to have a problem with some words being used in fiction writing. It looks more or less as if you are almost going to get annoyed, give or take, with anybody who uses some of these words. Am I approximately on the right track and thus have I roughly anticipated your attitude towards these words; or do you think I’m wrong or only nearly wrong?
    Excellent blog. I had some fun with these words 🙂 I use ‘seem’ far too often so I use the search command to find them when I have written – a useful editing tool. Spell check is useful also then I might learn to spell attitude better. 🙂

  4. @Ray: Glad you’re enjoying the podcasts! You’re right – the good thing about vague words and phrasings is that removing them is usually just a simple matter of running a Find in Word.

    @Christopher: You seem to be roughly on the right track – give or take a phrase or two. 😉

  5. One reason (excuse?) for using vague words is to stay in the POV.

    Would the POV character be confident the bomb fell exactly ten feet away? Probably not. But would he care?

    The solution is to think more like the character.

    Most people don’t measure in feet. What about car-length; compact-car-length; moving-van-length; knocked me off my feet; four steps; two bodies; dog-leash; or covered me in dust / splinters / bricks?

    Even if he does think in feet (real estate agents, long-jump athlete), would he care about the measurement error? Sometimes. In the moment, probably not, unless he’s programming a bomb-disposal robot. In a legal charge, probably yes, so the defense won’t quibble over the measurement error.

  6. Oh boy, the “should, would, could” factor! My first drafts are infested with this kind of language. By the second draft they are gone, never to be seen again.

    Most of the time… 😀

  7. @Cricket: Staying in POV is always key. If being vague shows something important about a character’s personality, definitely leave it in.

    @ralfast: Good for you! Thank heavens for second drafts, eh?

  8. Seem and almost are mine. At a class I attended, the tutor pointed out how things couldn’t be “Almost” anything. Your character either did or didn’t do something. Writing “she almost got there in time” could be simplified into “she was late”. Definitely one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever had!

  9. Wow!! Thanks for all the advice!!! I will just keep a note of this all!!

    Thanks for listing the words instead of just telling all the advice!!

    with warm regards
    http://becomingprince.blogspot.com

  10. I think the word ‘very’ is vague. I read a quote from Mark Twain: “Write ‘Damn’ every time you are tempted to write ‘Very.’ Your editor will scratch it out, and you’ll be left with the sentence you ought to have written.”
    Since then, I scratch ‘Very’ out every time I write it, and every time, it strengthens the sentence more than weakens it. Thank you Mark Twain. And Thank you for the post!

  11. Uh-oh, I use “seem” or “seemed” too much! thanks for such a helpful post.

  12. I’m wondering if these words turn up a lot because they’re common in business writing. I edit a newsletter, and people just don’t want to commit, so they add the weasel words.

  13. @Miss Cole: It’s kind of akin to Yoda’s immortal wisdom: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

    @AllMyPosts: Specific lists are always more helpful in my opinion. Glad you found it useful!

    @T.R.: Yes, very vague. 😉 Mark Twain’s advice rarely goes amiss.

    @Elizabeth: The good news is that now that you’ve figured it out, it’s an easy issue to fix.

    @Linda: Interesting observation. Makes sense to me!

  14. Oh man, I didn’t even realize I use the “looks as if” on just about every page! *off to delete*

    Thanks for this!!

  15. Amazing how these insidious little phrases sneak in without us even being aware of them, isn’t it?

  16. Oh I am SO guilty of this!! Ahh. Great post, and grat advice, as usual ;o) Thank you for this. Off to scan the WIP again!! LOL

  17. We certainly give our Find tools a good workout, don’t we? Gotta wonder what writers did before them!

  18. I just searched my last completed rough draft for these words. *wince* In 105 pages I have 240 abouts. I look forward to avoiding them in my next draft!
    Thanks for doing this series. It is making me eager to finish my first draft so I can start editing!

  19. Better late than never on fixing ’em!

  20. Thanks for this! I love the comments, too.

    I find that I don’t want to “commit” to things, so I add in those vague qualifiers sometimes, too.

  21. Another great article. One of my favorite things about your posts is that you don’t just talk about what we should and shouldn’t do. You always share multiple examples and that makes it easier to grasp whatever lesson you’re sharing. Thanks for another good one.

  22. Great post, as always. I’m going to have to do a search for the word “seem” in my WIP.

  23. @Sarah: As writers, we like to cover our bases. We may be *pretty* sure of a fact, but, just in case, we’re wrong we’ll stick in a qualifier. But the truth is: We either need to do the necessary research to be sure, or we need to just lie so convincingly that readers never even think about doubting us.

    @Lee: You’re very welcome! I’m glad you find the examples helpful.

  24. Great article! I find that I’m prone to use vague words when I get tired and don’t want to work at precise wording.
    Thanks for the list. Now I can go edit my last story and groan.

  25. @Katie: You know, I haven’t done a search like that in a while myself. I should probably run one too!

    @Karen: Editing and groaning – two actions that are often very productive when done together!

  26. I’ve had to remove plenty of these words from my manuscript, and I’ll bet I can delete more. Thanks.

  27. Thanks for the great reminders. And now, for fear of becoming vague or weak, I’ll just begin editing.

  28. Thanks for the great reminders. And now, for fear of becoming vague or weak, I’ll just begin editing.

  29. Get that red pen out and start wielding! 😀

  30. @Julie: Have fun! The last thing a writer can afford is to appear weak or vague – unless, of course, he’s dealing with an intentionally weak or vague character.

  31. I’m always looking for ways to tighten my story. Thanks for the word list.

  32. Tight stories are usually excellent stories. Here’s to all of us achieving that goal!

  33. I’ve had to go through and consciously remove a bunch of imprecise words for the very reasons you’ve specified out of my stories. “About” is one of my biggies, but so is “just” combined with “about”! 🙂 You have to be precise when writing mysteries, although a little obfuscation by imprecision can make good red herrings. 😉

  34. “Just” was a word that an early editor jumped on me for overusing. I like to think I’m slightly more aware of it now days!

  35. So true, so true! I use “seems” a lot, but I usually notice it. Still, I need to be better about getting it out of my prose.

  36. Most vague words do a good job blending into the wallpaper. We don’t notice them, readers don’t notice them. What we *do* notice is the effect they have on our prose.

  37. It’s taken a while to see it but once I matured as a writer I see writing like those and I feel it more than I read it. When I’m reviewing something I come across them and I feel it before I identify the ambiguous statements. It’s a fondness for adverbs.

  38. Adverbs (and adjectives) are like candy. We love them, but they’re not necessarily good for us.

  39. You’ve listed key indicators of diluted writing. I can’t think of another word to add to this very useful list of culprits, but will save it as a reference to perform global searches on my own manuscripts. I’ve always been weary of “seems” and “about” and any word with an -ly ending. Why make broth when you can have stew, something the reader can get their teeth into?

  40. That’s a great analogy! Personally, I’ve never been into broth. But stew… mmm!

  41. OK, next lesson checked, I am guilty of these words, too. At least a bit better than my “there” sins.
    Thanks – now I got much closer to understand why this ProWritingAid is highlighting the vague and abstract words. I use it for editing but never paid much attention to this report. Yes, more groaning will happen soon…
    I’m not sure if this fits your list, but my PWA discovered an excessive usage of “all”, the worst *seems* to be in “at all” clump.

  42. Wow! How timely was this, my friend…I’m self-editing my first novel, and I’ve noticed these words over and over. And I’ve taken them out in order to tighten the sentences and make my characters less wishy-washy. One word I use and overuse is “sometimes”. I’ve found in several instances that taking it out defines my character: “He’d noticed over the years she sometimes reacted that way.” In the context of the scene, it’s much better to say, “He’d noticed over the years she’d reacted the same way.” Thanks, Katie! Back to spit-polishing now…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good addition! I like the “poetry” that sometimes adds in certain situations. But often, as you say, it’s nothing but equivocating.

  43. Nice “vague writing” examples, Katie. I agree with your assessment, and add one more. In the final example where the house addition is 50 square feet, this corresponds to a room that is just over 7 feet square – a hilariously tiny addition. Unless describing the surprisingly minuscule size of the addition was the intent of including the numbers, I submit that this author’s bigger mistake was mathematical!

  44. I generally agree, but I am also sometimes jerked out of my reading bubble when characters note something of which they can’t be sure – in sentences such as:
    “He looked up and saw a 23-year-old woman approach him”. In such cases, please add the vagueness, or risk bursting the bubble!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In that case, I agree. It’s a matter of POV. Would the POV character think of this woman as exactly twenty-three? We might think of someone as “twenty,” but probably not “twenty-three.” If so, it’s saying something about the narrator.

  45. This is a great article.
    What do you think about using the word seemed in the cases where the narrating character, say in third person limited, is noticing the reaction of another character?
    Example: “He seemed unsure about the plan but eventually agreed to it.”
    I’ve always thought it was a great way to show the motivations of a non-narrating character without head hopping.

  46. There are times, to me, that every story needs to be a little vague. One, to create a question in the reader’s minds. I like to give the reader 2 + 2 + 1…not 5. Make them wonder a little bit. I think it sucks them further into the story. I like small innuendos and finger posts…that must be answered, of course, at some point. I think a touch of vagueness on occasion creates mystery. Really, how many people could say with certainty that the bomb fell ten feet from me? Now I do agree that ten or twelve is a bit broad. How about a little over ten feet away…
    Is there really a better way to say this? — “You don’t seem to count very well…woman. They’s three of us an’ one of you.”
    “Just about even odds…I make it.” She grinned at the hawk-faced gunman.
    Or– After circling back about mile and a half, Bone approached the road from the north through the cedar trees and other brush while Loraine came in from the south. They caught sight of each other and signaled.
    There’s no way anyone could know if it was a mile…or a mile and a half out in the countryside. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Everything has its place…Even an occasional ‘very’.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t disagree. But it’s important for writers to recognize the vague words, so we can make a conscious choice about why we may or may not be using them.

  47. Peter Kapitola says

    “As the creator of your worlds and your characters, you will always have the ability to make statements of authority in your writing. After all, if you’re not the authority in your stories, who is?”

    Doesn’t this presume an omniscient narrator though? If we are using first or third person limited POV, we are limited to what the character perceives and the inferences they draw about what is happening. If we tell exactly what is happening and why, we are changing POV. Or, possibly, we’re revealing something about that character. A character who isn’t noticeably aware of their own perceptions and biases may sound confident and bold, but they also may be over-confident. A character who does realise the limits of their perception (and internally questions what they are seeing and how they are interpreting it) is much wiser.

    But that said, I do see you point. If we are going for a close narrative distance, we don’t want to be filtering events through the character’s senses too much. We want to reader to experience the events as the character does.

    As usual, good writing is one almighty balancing act!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Taken literally, yes, my statement implies an omniscient narrator. But even within confined POVs, the author will still be choosing every word with precision. If the vagueness is a deliberate choice to characterize or remain in POV, the rules will be a little different. But even in confined POVs, there is often much more vagueness than is actually necessary to preserve integrity.

      • Peter raises an interesting point/question: when should the specificity of the language reflect the author’s knowledge vs the character’s knowledge?

        Or to put it another way: How fair are we obligated to play with the audience? If we’re viewing the scene through Maddock’s eyes and he sees something as tomato sauce on the wall, but it’s actually blood, is it fair and reasonable to describe it as sauce, since Maddock would assume that and hasn’t had the opportunity to discover otherwise? Or is that cheating the audience.

        On the flip side, if our descriptions only lapse into vagueness when we’re hiding something from the audience, doesn’t that kind of telegraph their significance?

        Thanks.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It always depends on the effect the author is trying to create, which is why authors must always be aware of how readers are likely to interact with any particular phrase. If the author is purposely playing against reader expectations for any variety of reasons (irony, experimentation, etc.), breaking the “rules” of POV can work. But the payoff must be a fair exchange; otherwise, readers will just end up feeling the author broke the rules out of ignorance rather than understanding.

  48. Thanks for this post. A reminder about the trap of weasel words is always helpful.

    The Elle example looks like it’s part of a larger descriptive/summary section. If it was instead introducing a scene about Elle’s encounter with the cop and you wanted to avoid losing tension by giving the outcome up front, one alternative approach would be to more precisely describe the current setup rather than the future outcome. eg. “Elle was forty-five minutes late for her dentist appointment and was doing 54 in a 50 zone when the police siren sprang into life behind her”.

  49. Aaron Jacob Little says

    It may help, too, for character and voice sake to use creative descriptors people already understand for numerical measurements.
    “The bomb went off a car’s length away.”
    “Elle was already a Law & Order late for her dentist when the cop’s lights flashed.”
    “Mark’s figures revealed the addition would add a McDonald’s Playland amount of space to the already sprawling project.”
    Those may not be the best examples, but the concept is an option.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is especially helpful when writing fantasy, when accepted measurement standards may not work for the story.

      • Aaron Jacob Little says

        Oh good point. I like that. “The clever spy – or so he thought – was a noon shadow from his prize, when out of the trunk sprang a … “

  50. Good advice. Thank you. Can’t think of any words to add to the list. It’s pretty comprehensive. Opps. Should I have just said, it’s comprehensive?

Trackbacks

  1. […] Vague writing stems from writers that have the inability to express exactly what they want to say. Instead of directly and clearly describing key points, such an author would use generalizations, avoid specifics and concrete naming, and prefers to make broad judgments instead of providing detailed facts and evidence. […]

  2. […] Most Common Writing Mistakes: Why Vague Writing Is Weak Writing […]

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