Vague Words

Often in an early draft of a book I find that I have used “lazy language” to convey an idea.  These words look like they’re trying to do something, but in reality, they manage to lie on the page, limp and lifeless. There are vague nouns and vague verbs, and surprisingly there are vague adjectives, too.

Whatever the cause of these nondescript descriptive words being in our manuscripts, the hard fact is: they need to be removed.  What these lame and lifeless words manage to do is take up space without actually furthering the writing, whether it’s a story or an essay.  How does one spot these words?  It takes practice, and a willingness to do a little extra digging when it comes time for revision.

Let’s look at a few examples. What kinds of words would be considered vague?

Nouns that are broad and undefined fall into the vague category.  These are words like stuff, things, people, everyone, no one, guys, girls, men, women, kids, animals, them, they, etc.  What do these words really tell you about the subject or object in your sentence? Not much, if anything.

Here’s an example:

     Brenda came in and dropped her stuff on the table.

At first glance, this looks decent enough.  Some would ask what the problem was, or is it important that we know what the “stuff” is.  It might be. In fact, it could totally change the direction of the story depending on what “stuff” Brenda is carrying.

     Brenda came and dropped her backpack on the table.

     Brenda came in and dropped her blood-covered hacksaw on the table.

     Brenda came in and dropped her prosthetic leg on the table.

Okay – these are extreme examples to be certain, but the point is, those are three very different scenarios because of changing the word “stuff” to something more specific.

Vague verbs have the same problem that vague nouns do: they leave the important information behind.  Let’s look at the same sentence above (using backpack in place of stuff) and see what happens when we change the verb “came” to something more specific.

     Brenda stomped in and dropped her backpack on the table.

     Brenda tiptoed in and dropped her backpack on the table.

     Brenda skipped in and dropped her backpack on the table.

The differences are obvious – yet in an early draft, many writers may not think twice about using a verb like “came” or a noun like “stuff” to fill in the information.  There are a lot of vague nouns.  Sometimes we create them by using the passive voice – the “be” verbs – or by using a weak verb instead of a strong one.  Here is another set of examples:

     Nevil wanted to be an astronaut.

     Nevil dreamed of being an astronaut.

     Nevil imagined himself as an astronaut.

While all three of these are saying basically the same thing, it is the last one that avoids the passive construction and brings the reader more immediately into Nevil’s thoughts. Finding better verbs takes effort.  It is part of the revision process for many good writers to look for the opportunities of trading out weaker verbs for stronger ones in their manuscripts.  A lot of writers, especially newer writers with less experience, feel that one or two revisions is enough, and they don’t stop to dig further and look for these specific opportunities.

Vague adjectives are a particular pet peeve of mine.  Words like good, bad, pretty, ugly, nice, mean, cute, friendly, old, young, etc., do nothing to help  readers fill in the blanks of the picture that’s being presented to them.  Writers who participate in critique groups will tell you that there is nothing worse than feedback like, “It was good; I liked it.”  What exactly does this mean?  Specific detail is always superior to generic comment.  Sometimes this means writers may need to rework an entire passage to avoid a weak or vague adjective, but in the end, the extra effort and extra length are worthwhile.

     Matilda looked pretty in her blue dress.

Wow – that certainly says nothing special.  Here are some alternatives that may actually keep a reader from yawning.

     Matilda floated down the staircase in her seafoam blue formal that  complimented her eyeshadow.

 (Frighteningly enough, I had a formal much like this in high school!)

     Matilda rocked in her wicked, electric blue dress.

The idea is that you should paint the picture for the reader, not to the point of overkill, but enough so that the reader understands the image you are trying to create.

Vague language is a challenge because it hides beneath the mask of real words.  It looks suspiciously like the writer has given something of substance to the reader, but in reality, the words are hollow and the reader is left to think “what?” Good writers seek to identify these empty imitators and to excise them during revision.  Novice writers often don’t want to work that hard, or believe that they got everything right in the first attempt.

Hint to those writers: try a thesaurus.  Heck, how about just a dictionary?

Granted, it is not every sentence that requires this intense, descriptive overhaul. Sometimes it’s just fine to move things along using less powerful verbs or adjectives.  But there are times and places within a manuscript that call for that added “oomph” and when it is missing, the reader knows it.

Avoid vague language.  Give the reader the adequate descriptive words they need.  And learn to love revision.  That’s really what it comes down to in the end.

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11 thoughts on “Vague Words

  1. drtombibey says:

    Words of wisdom here, folks. This is very similar to the advice my agent has given me.

    He says every farmer knows the hard work is when you chop the cotton.

    Dr. B

  2. […] an excellent guest post on improving your writing, by Kim W. Justesen, originally posted on her blog, Sept. 11, 2008. For more on Kim, including her availability for school visits in the Salt Lake […]

  3. Thomas Patton says:

    Very helpfull in helping me with the writing process.

  4. Jonas says:

    thanks a lot, this article seemed to be a start for my new career, perhaps. cheers !!! 😀

  5. Jonas says:

    thanks a lot, this article was really helpful for my understanding of language/..” !!! cheers 🙂

  6. Jonas says:

    I LOVE YOUUUUU! 😀

  7. bartad says:

    May I have permission to excerpt some of this blog for my college writing students?

  8. Kim Justesen says:

    Bartad –

    Yes! Absolutely! I’m glad you found this useful. May I ask where you teach?

  9. Monica says:

    Thanks, this article was very helpful. Never to old to learn something new.

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  11. Posey says:

    Reblogged this on Cool Cat Writers and commented:
    Thanks to Kim Williams-Justesen for this blog post. She shares fun insight to help us cut vagueness and use descriptive words to put colorful imagery in our writing. Out with the dull and in with the WoW!

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