Precision a Problem? Make It a Game


“I’m fine.”

If this is the response you get when you ask someone how they are, do you really have a firm grip on her status?

Said in anger or sarcasm, the meaning may be opposite of what the words would normally make you think. Said unsurely, it could make you unsure of the person’s real status. Even if said confidently, what does “fine” really mean? Is the person healthy, happy, doing okay but not great, mentally stable, or a combination of any of these?

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, there are three entries for “fine” with a total of 16 definitions!

Using precise words helps us avoid miscommunication. The better “mind picture” we can give, the surer the success of what we say or write.

This morning, if someone asked me how I was, I might say, “The gloomy weather is trying to get me down, but it’s not succeeding.”  A week before, it might have been, “I can’t stop smiling.”

One great method for trying to drill down to a precise word, is to play a sort of word chain. Here’s an example:

workspace > desk > L-shaped computer desk with writing area

Here’s another one:

food > snack > crackers > wheat crackers with a slice of cheddar cheese

The further you get in the chain, the more precise the description. Of course, there are times when “desk” or “crackers” will suffice, but you get the drift.

We should strive for precision with verbs, too.

Alfred is trying to get his keys out versus Alfred fumbled for his keys.

The customer seemed angry versus The customer demanded to see the manager about the defective product.

The best time to play this Precision Game is when you’re revising. The better you get at it, the less people will misunderstand what you’re saying.

Technology works great — when you make sure to push all the right buttons. Unfortunately, on those days when I feel like someone poured concrete into my sinuses, those buttons sometimes get neglected. Thus the reason for my absence last week. My apologies for any confusion. ☹


Don’t Forget What Supports Good Writing

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There is several things I eluded to recently that cause me to reign in my ideals about writing good?

Who read that and thought, “Has she lost her mind?!”

People who think grammar, word choice, and punctuation aren’t all that important don’t seem to understand that those elements are necessary for clear communication. Clarity of writing is the target we all (except maybe politicians, legislators, and lawyers) must strive for.

Any business knows that clearly and precisely outlining the benefits of the products or services it offers means success.

What happens when we ignore the guidelines for good writing? One thing is that we make our readers work too hard. If the reader has to go back several times in a sentence to try to “translate” what the writer means, the reader is forced to concentrate on the mechanics rather than the meaning.

Worse than that, we all know what happens when people have to fill in the blanks of intention. In the old game of telephone, a message is whispered along to each player in a line until, by the end, what comes out barely resembles the original message. Let’s not provide an environment of obscurity.

We need to remember that grammar is the infrastructure that supports the easy flow of communication while precision with words is the traffic light that guides the reader to the idea.

We write to share – to provide information, evoke emotion, or persuade. If we ignore the elements that create good writing, we fail to communicate.

The Clues Are in the Vocabulary

When we are in a face-to-face conversation, we receive lots of information from nonverbal clues. When we read, we can’t see somvector-typewriter-10158eone’s facial expression, nor can we hear tonal changes in the words. What can writers do to compensate for this?

Writers use active, descriptive words and precise vocabulary to create clarity. It sounds easy, but it’s something people have a hard time with. Writers just need to remember the visual they are trying to present or the questions readers might have, and include words to fill in the gaps.

Let’s look at how writers can clue readers in.

Describe the Scene

Maybe we have a young character who is trying to avoid telling her mother the truth about how she did on a test. We know she’ll try to avoid outright lying but will do her best to skirt the truth.

What kinds of things will she do that will indicate that she is uncomfortable? What words will she use to answer her mother? How can we incorporate these things in our writing?

“How did you do on that test?” her mother asked.

Emily rolled her eyes toward the ceiling over her mother’s right shoulder as she shifted from one foot to the other.

“Umm. Well, I didn’t fail,” she grimaced with a weak, “heh, heh!”

If we had just written “Well, I didn’t fail,” Emily said, we might not understand the whole situation.  We paint the scene by describing Emily’s actions and the way she is speaking with specific vocabulary.

Use Precise Words

I already hear a bunch of you saying, “That’s great for fiction, but that doesn’t help me write a business letter.”

Well, precise language is even more important in business than it is in fiction. We lose efficiency when we don’t make ourselves clear.

Lots of folks have a hard time with this on resumes.

I’m a hardworking team player with advanced education. I am a highly qualified, successful worker with mad management skills.

Would you hire this person? What job would you hire her for? How many questions about the candidate pop into your head when you read this?

Say the job is for a design engineer in the air conditioning industry.

I led a team of seven engineers, designers, and lab technicians on a three-month project to increase SEER* in a five-ton residential unit from 14 to 16 with minimal changes to existing parts or footprint. (Note: I’m not an HVAC engineer so, if the numbers seem ridiculous, sorry about that.)

Notice that the candidate uses specific vocabulary to explain working on a team, leadership skills, time frame, and industry knowledge.

In business writing, the trick is to answer all the questions before someone has the opportunity to ask.  When people have to stop and seek further information, they waste time.

Revision is where most writers will see what words they need to put in, take out, or change. (Remember, we never skip the revision step.)

The trick is to avoid vague, general, weak words whenever we’re writing.

*SEER: Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio