Teachers in school settings as well as readers in workplace settings abhor vagueness. If you say, “Research suggests that drinking grape juice lowers cholesterol,” they’ll ask, “What research? How was the research conducted? Who conducted the research? Did the results appear in a credible source?”
When writing, you may use words or phrases that convey rich meaning to you. A word like “stuff” or “thing” can encapsulate other words, stories, and events in your mind, but in your readers’ mind the words can mean something altogether different.
Are vague descriptions always wrong?
Not always. Sometimes vague descriptions may help you build suspense. Some rhetorical situations may warrant intention vagueness
Typically, however, vagueness undermines communication. For example, instructions for assembling furniture should be very specific. New furniture owners need to know to “Attach Board A to Board B using two hex screws.” Vague instructions that read “Hook the two longish boards together with some screws” won’t be very helpful to someone trying to assemble a desk.
Vague descriptions can also affect persuasive writing. If you are not specific about exactly what you are trying to convince the reader to believe, you will not be as successful. Readers typically respond more enthusiastically to concrete details and specific examples rather than vague suggestions of ideas.
How can I tell if I have a vague description?
It can be hard to tell if your writing includes vague descriptions. After all, you already know what you mean to say. To identify vague descriptions, read your writing with your audience in mind, and share your writing with a reader to ask where the descriptions are vague or unclear.
As you read through your document, question whether language is as specific and exact as necessary by considering ways to make the language more descriptive:
- Have I used any words that need to be “unpacked,” words that mean a lot to me that readers may not understand without additional clarifications?
- Have I appealed to the five senses when possible?
- Have I used the first-person voice as opposed to the passive voice, when appropriate?
- Have I defined terms and concepts the reader may not understand?
- Have I provided specific examples to support my claims?
- Have I provided evidence and cited the evidence as required by my readers?
Read your writing with your audience in mind
Remember that what you are describing may be completely new for your audience, so they may not know precisely what you’re thinking of when you describe something. If possible, imagine your audience (maybe your roommate or peer review partner) and ask yourself, “Which parts of this would he/she probably need to know more about?”
Ask yourself if your words describe precisely the ideas or sensory perceptions you would like your audience to imagine. Consider the following two sentences:
The car arrived.
The red Porsche slid gracefully into the tight parking spot.
Which sentence gives you a more specific idea of what’s happening? Which sentence is more engaging? Which sentence are you more likely to remember? If you’re like most people, the second sentence probably strikes you as more specific, engaging, and memorable.
That’s because the second sentence avoids vague description. Identifying ineffective vague description is a matter of deciding whether or not your writing contains an appropriate level of detail and specificity to convey meaning precisely to your reader.
Share your writing with a reader to ask where the language is vague or unclear
A reader might tell you that “the car arrived” leaves them wondering what kind of car it is. Perhaps the kind of car and how it is parked matters because it tells something about the character of the car’s driver. Readers can let you know when they feel like they’re missing these details.
How can I revise a vague description?
There are a number of ways to revise a vague description to make it more specific and memorable to the reader. These are a few potential revision strategies:
1. Add sensory words referring specifically to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
Original: I walked into a room.
Revised: Quietly, I walked into a dank, heavily furnished room.
2. Replace non-specific adjectives like good, bad, okay, pretty, happy, and sad.
Original: The cake tasted good.
Revised: The strawberry cake tasted fresh and tart.
3. Remove and replace unnecessary qualifiers like sort of and kind of , or replace them with more specific adjectives, adverbs, and verbs.
Original: I kind of said I was sort of down.
Revised: I hinted I was unhappy.
4. Try to explain it verbally. If you or someone else has identified a sentence as vague or unclear, begin by explaining out loud (to yourself or him/her) what exactly you meant in that sentence. Almost always, it will comes out in a much more detailed way. Now, write that instead of what you originally wrote.
What are some common types of vague descriptions?
There are many kinds of vague descriptions. This list suggests a few types of vague descriptions you can watch out for in your own writing.
1. Not including sensory words referring specifically to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
Original: The room was dirty.
Revised: The room was strewn with trash and smelled like a public bathroom.
2. Relying on non-specific adjectives like good, bad, okay, pretty, happy, and sad. These can give a reader only a superficial and general sense of emotion or description.
Original: I drove a nice car.
Revised: I drove a fast, expensive car.
3. Using qualifiers like sort of, kind of, and generally without further explanation.
Original: This textbook is sort of interesting.
Revised: This textbook has interesting graphics, but the writing is boring .
4. Making poor word choices or having wordiness that makes your meaning vague.
Original: Jeff performed timely inspections on key nodes in strategically vital business units by engaging and applying client feedback to operationally important points of contact with customers.
Revised: Jeff reviewed customer feedback and revised policies on responsiveness to customer feedback.