Hard skill number two: vivid is good

rogersgeorge on March 28th, 2010

Two nouns and two verbs. You should avoid these four words whenever you can. That’s hard, sometimes, because you have to—(see the last word in this post).

Any form of “to be,” “to do,” thing,” and “stuff.”

These words can substitute for about anything. Because they are so versatile, they don’t mean much themselves, so don’t use them to substitute for the word you mean.

Here’s a recent 911 call in Southern Indiana: “Got a man with a knife who’s doing things.”  A 911 call, and a knife. And all we get is “doing things”? Give me more!

The police were more articulate, and I use them as an example of good writing: “ [he] used a hunting knife to cut through meat packages, throwing open containers of raw beef on the floor. He then poured dog food over some of the meat in hopes of contaminating it…” That tells you what’s going on.

What are your favorite meaningless words? Add yours to these four in the comments.

So. Whenever you find yourself about to use one (or more) of those meaningless words, don’t. Use the real words, words that describe what’s happening. The last word: Think.


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Some of the hard part of writing

rogersgeorge on March 24th, 2010

A large portion of the advice on this humble site has been fairly straightforward, examples of the use and misuse of easy-to-understand rules that can be followed more or less mechanically. Sometimes, though, you have to actually think about what you’re writing. No rule but the meaning.

So here’s the rule: Be sure you say what you mean.

I have a couple examples of how to get this wrong. These are all examples of real writing, gleaned from various sources, online and off.

The impressive lobby features doric columns leading to an elegant wooden staircase of fine oak joinery which is almost unique in Ireland.

Let’s look at the issue of “almost” unique. Unique means one of a kind. You can’t be almost one of a kind—you are or you aren’t.

We have another problem with this sentence. Exactly what does Ireland have so few of? Columns that lead to elegant staircases? The staircases themselves? The oak joinery? Or perhaps a combination of these? Adjective clauses such as this one (“which is almost unique…”), which has a choice of candidates to modify, can be tricky if you want to be unambiguous.

How would you recast the sentence? Tell us in the comments.

Another example of the need to think when you write next time.

Absolutes and ranges

rogersgeorge on March 16th, 2010

Have you ever seen a help-wanted ad for a sales job that said something like “make up to $50,000 or more the first year!” Here’s a cousin to that ad: “…and save at least 10 to 20% of the energy demand and costs…”

How can you have up to something, and then have more? Semantically, you can’t.  Sure, an expression like what’s in that job ad sounds good, but if you’re trying to tell the (ahem) truth, don’t write like that.

Expressions such as “up to,” “at least,” “no more (less) than,” and “as few (many) as” are all absolutes. They describe the end of a range. And the end, dear fellow mathematicians, is a point. So don’t put a range there.

Or don’t use an absolute—stick with the range. That want ad could have said “our best salesperson (note the choice of non-sexist term) made $50,000 last year, but he could have earned more.” (Or less truthfully perhaps, but also semantically correct, “our salespeople frequently earn more than $50,000.”)

How about the energy savings? Write something like “the low average of energy saved is in the 10 to 20% range.”

Getting absolutes and ranges right is a slightly advanced technique because you have to think about what you’re saying. The next post will mention a slightly more advanced technique. You’ll have to think harder.

What do you think? Make a comment, or if you don’t know what to think, take a look at the free document mentioned in the sign-up form on the right.