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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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”.

  4. 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 … “

  5. Liz Coward says:

    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?

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