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:

  • 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.

Tell me your opinion: What words and phrases do you feel are unnecessarily vague?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. @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!

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

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

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

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

  6. @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.

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

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

  9. 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. 😉

  10. “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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

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

  15. 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?

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

  17. 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.

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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