Guest Post: Vague Words by ProWritingAid

To start 2016 off right, those clever folks over at ProWritingAid have launched a series of great “What are…” posts to help writers understand some of the more technical elements of writing.  Below is one that they have written especially for us about vague and abstract words.  If you like it, you should also try these ones over at their blog:

What are Overused Words?

What are the Different Types of Verbs?

What is a Cliché?

What is POV?

What are Dangling Modifiers?

And keep your eye on their website or sign up for their newsletter because they have loads more in the pipeline!


What are Vague Words and Why Should You Stay Away from Them?

There are two types of words that muddy the waters for clarity and concise writing: vague and abstract words.

Too vague and you won’t grab your readers’ attention. #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

vague wordsVague words are too subjective in meaning, like tall, pretty, a little, slightly, or good. Each of us has different worldviews to help us define what “pretty” means. And we all know “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Pretty doesn’t tell us much, does it?

If you want readers to get more than a hint of your meaning, you need to choose words with strong denotations instead of a vague term open to interpretation. Consider the following sentences:

She was a pretty girl.

Her face displayed perfect symmetry: wide-set eyes, high cheek bones, full lips, and a dainty nose that fit perfectly with her features.

Which gives you a better picture in your mind? Concise writing doesn’t always have the fewest words, but rather the strongest ones. Replacing vague words with strong ones helps give concrete meaning to your prose. It’s hard work, but the results are worth reading.

Abstract words are hard to grasp. #amwriting #amediting Click To Tweet

An abstract noun denotes something intangible, such as a quality or state. A concrete noun denotes the person or thing that may possess that quality or be in that state. For example: man is concrete and humanity is abstract, brain is concrete and thought is abstract. Abstract nouns are sometimes perfect, but they should not be used to excess.

There are two main reasons for limiting your abstract word usage:

  • Indirect Statements

Abstract nouns can make your statement indirect, which makes its meaning more difficult to grasp.  Look at this sentence where the subject is an abstract noun:

Was this the realisation of an anticipated problem?

A concrete noun is much more natural:

Did you expect you would have to do this?

The subject of this sentence is abstract:

The association of varying ingredients can sometimes work together to such a degree that a new and exciting flavor is revealed.

Whereas the subject of this one is concrete:

Mixing together different-tasting foods—try putting mayonnaise on a peanut butter sandwich—can create a new favorite comfort food.

  • Imprecise Meaning

Abstract nouns have less precise meanings than concrete ones, and so they are open to interpretation.  When you use common nouns like house or child, your reader knows exactly what you mean.  When you use words like kindness or improvement, their meaning is more open to interpretation.  

John made some improvements on his house and it’s now more valuable.


John replaced the roof, repainted the kitchen and laid hardwood floors in his house.  As a result, its value has increased by 10%.

In the second example, you have a much better idea about what was actually done to John’s house.  In the first example, you don’t know if John just replaced one doorknob or completely renovated the whole house.  

The precise idea that you are trying to get across may be lost if your reader’s interpretation of an abstract noun is different from yours.  But it’s hard to be precise, which is why we fall back on abstract words.  The key is to use abstract words sparingly, making sure you instead opt for concrete nouns in your descriptive writing.

Vagueness can mean taking a long time to say nothing at all. #amwriting #amediting Click To Tweet

Couching words in vague expressions can blur meaning to the point where it no longer exists. Politicians use vagueness to their advantage when they want to give a statement that sounds rhetorically impressive without committing themselves to specific pledges.

Consider this extract from a speech that UK Prime Minister David Cameron made in November 2015:

Let’s acknowledge that the answer to every problem is not always more Europe.

Sometimes it is less Europe.

Let’s accept that one size does not fit all.

That flexibility is what I believe is best for Britain; and, as it happens, best for Europe too.

Doing what is best for Britain drives everything I do as Prime Minister.

That means taking the difficult decisions, and sometimes making arguments that people don’t much want to hear.

It’s like he was trying to give us an over-the-top example in how to use loads of words to say nothing at all!

Vague language has been constructed here by using:

  • abstract nouns as the subject – “that flexibility”; “what is best for Britain”
  • undefined reference points for contrast – “less Europe” and “more Europe”
  • clichés – “difficult decisions”, “the answer to every problem”, “one size does not fit all”
  • vague words – “sometimes”, “as it happens”, “much”, “people”

In these six sentences, the Prime Minister has talked about Europe, Britain and decision-making without mentioning a single specific example or point of policy.  He has been intentionally vague so that everyone listening or reading can agree with what has been said.  

Using language in this way is great if your character is a politician or intends to waffle.  If not, it will just be frustrating to read.  Your readers will lose interest if they have to wade through paragraphs that communicate no real message.

Vague words to look out for include: some, sometimes, a few, many, most, much, early, late, others, soon, really, stuff, things.

Being specific can aid your plot and character development. #amwriting #amediting Click To Tweet

The flip side of having to avoid vague language is that using specific language will help galvanize your plot and contribute to character development.

Let’s consider this paragraph:

Sarah wasn’t sure what she should do next.  She had already collected most of her stuff but really didn’t want go back.  Thinking about making the journey was tiring: she just wanted to stay in and put her feet up.

Rewriting the vague language may seem like a chore, but it’s actually an opportunity.  

Perhaps there is a key plot point to work in – has Sarah’s reason for leaving already been outlined?  If not, this is the time to reveal to the reader that she has committed a crime or is fleeing an ex-boyfriend.

Sarah wasn’t sure what she should do next.  She had already collected most of her stuff from Lee’s flat, but couldn’t face going back in case he was still there.  It was too tiring to make the journey: she just wanted to stay in and forget he existed.  

Or you could focus on characterization, adding specifics to give your readers an insight into Sarah’s personality and preferences.  Is she a nervous and sentimental character?

Sarah was crippled by uncertainty.  She had already collected the items most precious to her – she stroked the ear of the rescued Rufus for reassurance – but her clothes and make-up were still in the flat.  Just the thought of driving over was exhausting: she would rather curl up on the sofa with a hot chocolate and pretend it had never happened.

Or perhaps she is feisty and easily angered?

Sarah cursed her indecision.  She had grabbed enough clothes for the next few days, but she had left behind all of her winter coats, perfume and rarely-worn jewelry.  Glaring at her car keys, she braced herself for the return trip and promised herself a bottle of red as a reward.

If you have a paragraph full of vague words, embrace the chance to rewrite it in a way that will bring your characters to life.

Final thoughts…

Let’s leave vagueness and abstract wording to the politicians.

If you want to take your reader on a journey with you, eliminate words without a precise meaning. Every word should move the reader along your path with confidence and clarity to arrive at your conclusion.

If a word doesn’t represent a concrete meaning, replace it. Try running your writing through the editing tool—the program automatically picks out all the vague and abstract words cluttering your prose.

Carefully consider every word you write and choose the best word possible. Your writing will be tighter, and your readers will be more engaged. It’s well worth it.

Meet the Founder of ProWriting Aid

As we launch Our Write Side into the writing community today we must express our gratitude to ProWriting Aid for their support. Their belief in our dream and sponsorship of our efforts has allowed us to make leaps forward in our progress! Additionally, using the ProWriting Aid tools has allowed us to drastically improve both our writing and our editing skills. ProWriting Aid is simple to use and offers a wide array of editing options. 

Introduce yourself, if you would?

Hi, I’m Chris Banks, founder of ProWritingAid. I started ProWritingAid just over 3 years ago to help writers like myself learn and improve.

Tell us a little about the history behind ProWriting Aid. What motivated you to develop this software?

I conceived ProWritingAid while I was writing a novel (an archeo-thriller – is that a genre?). I was used to writing research pieces and was frustrated by adapting my writing style to fiction. My background in statistical analysis meant that I began to look for measures that distinguished fiction from academic writing, and good writing from bad writing. I built a basic app to use those measure to find issues in my work so that I could fix them. ProWritingAid grew out of that and continues to evolve.

Do you have a mission statement? Would you share it?

Help people improve their writing. Writing is one of the most important things that we do, but many people find it difficult or frustrating. ProWritingAid allows you to improve your writing in your own time by providing you with unbiased feedback.

Writing is a big business. What sets your product apart from the rest?

I developed ProWritingAid foremost to help other writers. That’s why we’ll always have a free version of the app. The premium version offers great perks to users like Word and Google Docs add-ons, customizable reports and soon, a desktop version, but the free version is comprehensive and effective. We are also committed to providing premium licences to schools and universities at cost prices.

How is ProWritingAid different from my usual grammar-checker or a human editor?

Where ProWritingAid excels is at finding sentences that should be changed, not because they are grammatically incorrect, but because they are not as clear or as strong as they could be.

Some reports have been built based techniques have been passed down by writers for generations, like reducing reliance on adverbs or passive voice. Others have been developed more recently and are based on statistics. The app can scan your document in seconds and highlight repetitious phrases or structures so that you can add more variety. It can create a visual representation of your whole document so that you can assess your sentence length variety. It can find all those overly long and overly complicated sentences so that you can improve their clarity. The app doesn’t fix them for you, it just highlights potential pitfalls so that you can reassess them to make sure that you are getting your ideas across in the best way possible.

You should think of it as a two-step process: you use the editing tool to improve the technical elements of your writing so that your human editor is freed up to focus on content and style. We just did a guest post here that talks more about when to use a human and when to use an editing tool.

PWAscreengrab - online editing tool

What are your goals for yourself and the company in the next 3-5 years?

There’s a lot going on at the ProWritingAid HQ. A desktop version of the app is nearly ready for release as well as a Chrome extension. We want to make the app available wherever people write. I’m also experimenting with a new idea to help writers explore ideas and find inspiration. Hopefully, that will become a viable product.

Do you have a tutorial to help new users learn the full functionality of your software?

We designed the app to work at different levels, from basic grammar to some incredibly in-depth technical analysis. You learn as you go along. There are help links embedded within each report, ongoing tip and techniques in our blog and (if you are having trouble sleeping) there is a 75-page manual.

What is the biggest challenge you faced in launching your software?

Word for Mac. It does not support advanced add-ins like ours and our users ask for it all the time. The desktop app, which is coming out soon, will allow Mac users to work directly on Word documents, as well as other formats like Scrivener.

What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

The first time a user emailed to say thanks for helping him get his book published. That was a great moment. These days, it’s amazing how many people email just to say thanks. I love helping users so still read all the feedback emails we get sent. They’re also great for helping decide the future direction of the product.

What social media site has been your most productive for marketing and promotion?

Most of our traffic comes from word-of-mouth within writing circles. In fact, in the beginning, we could see from emails as it moved through different groups and genres. We had a strong following right in the beginning in the Vampire Romance genre. Writers have a strong support community and if someone finds a tool they like, they recommend it to their peers.

I’ve noticed that you refer to drafts on your Facebook page. Are you a writer yourself? Is everyone on your staff a writer?

I love writing. I used to write a lot for my job and spent a lot of my free time working on fiction. At the moment, it’s taking a backseat to ProWritingAid. I don’t know if everyone on staff is a writer, but I look to hire people who share my love of words.

PWAscreengrab - word add-in

We see that there is a blog on your site. What do you use your blog for? Is the content created in-house or do you accept submissions?

The blog is a place to find useful writing tips and techniques. Some posts are practical, others are motivational. We have great content writers in-house but we are always looking for inspiring guest bloggers so get in touch if you would like to submit a post (but run your post through ProWritingAid before you send it in!).

NaNoWriMo is coming up soon, will anyone on your team be participating? Will you be sponsoring the project?

We sponsored NaNoWriMo last year, and it was great. This year we are sponsoring other writing events so we reach as many writers as possible. I don’t think any of our staff are doing it this year, but they have done it in the past and got some great writing out of it.

We know you have an affiliates program, would you like to share how that works?

It’s simple really. If you have a writing website, you can sign up for the affiliate program and then earn a 50% commission of any sales that result from your promotion of ProWritingAid. It helps us find new users and helps writers earn a bit of money from their website – it’s a win-win situation.

Who is your favorite author and why?

If I had to pick a favourite book of all time I think it would be John Fowles’ The Magus but I also love magical realism like Louis De Bernier or Isabel Allende. Mario Puzo is also a favourite. I love his ability to write gripping backstory.

What advice do you have for new writers?

Write. Rewrite. Write again. Rewrite some more. Keep writing. Learn as much as you can about the technical elements of writing. The more you write, the more you learn.

What is the future of writing?

Technology will offer writers more. We’ve only touched the surface of what’s possible. We hope to be a big part of making life easier for writers in the future.

Give us your elevator pitch. What can you say that will send our subscribers to your website so they can enjoy this software?

It’s free, so there’s nothing to lose. Even the premium version costs less than one hour of a professional copy editor’s time. You’ll be amazed at what you learn about your writing by using the app.

Here’s a post written by Lisa Lepki, a staffer at ProWritingAid, that offers a fantastic breakdown of all the different editing tools it contains.

You can get your ProWriting Aid premium subscription here. Also, be sure to subscribe to Our Write Side to receive an exclusive discount!

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Genie Header 8_2011

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