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The Evolving Writer, Part V–Be Precise

Precision in writing is as important to good writing as brevity. In fact, precision, and it’s cousin clarity, inevitably produce brevity. The evolving writer will strive to develop all three qualities. Failure to do so will result in confusion and misunderstanding.

In writing, precision means using the best word for your intended meaning. This usually will not be the first word that pops into your head. It will be the word that you discover on your second, third, or an even later revision of your original work.

Mark Twain famously said (and has been quoted widely ever since he uttered the words), “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

For example, we are often tempted to write something like this: “I feel that we should. . . .” What we really mean, however, has nothing to do with our feelings. Rather, we mean something that has occurred in our logic or reasoning. The more precise term would be “I think (or believe) that we should. . . .” We have way too much acting on feelings; what we need is more thinking.

Here are a few ways to get you started on your quest for more precise writing.

  1. Use active voice. Rather than writing “The ball was hit by John,” write “John hit the ball.” That construction not only makes the sentence shorter by a third (brevity) but also gives the opportunity to be more precise, as illustrated in the next suggestion.

  2. Use vivid verbs. Rather than writing “John hit the ball,” choose a more precise term for hit. The word hit could be interpreted in many ways, whereas more precise options, depending on your intended meaning, might be tapped, tipped, bunted, dribbled, whacked, clobbered, creamed, or a host of other terms, each of which creates a slightly different image in the reader’s mind.

  3. Avoid euphemisms, jargon, and cliches. These are the lazy writer’s tools. Euphemisms are words that soften the real meaning, such as writing passed away instead of died.  Sometimes, a euphemism might be appropriate, but such “softeners” tend to open the door for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Jargon is tired, overused terminology that often is confined within a specific profession. Akin to jargon are worn-out idioms and cliches. Rather than using these, come up with new, more precise ways of saying things.

These are just three ways you can make your writing more precise and lively, thereby achieving both brevity and clarity. Begin to use verbal calipers in your writing, striving for precision, the best way of saying what you want your reader to know.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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