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Economy of Language 2: Vagueness

I talked about economy of language a few weeks ago and gave you some simple exercises. I went broad last time to help ease you into the subject. Let’s narrow things down a bit today and talk about vagueness.

For me, vagueness is easier to correct during the editing/revision phase. Don’t sweat too much if you’ve noticed any of these problems in your writing and you’re still in an early draft. Remember, macro to micro. Conquer the big, developmental problems first and work your way down to smaller issues like description and word choice. Vagueness is most likely a micro edit.

The material I’m covering today is a little more advanced than normal. Please leave a comment or contact me if you have any questions.

Why is vagueness a concern?

Vagueness hurts your economy of language for two reasons:

  1. You have to spend more time–and use more words–to explain your concept so your reader can understand it.
  2. Vague descriptions might not be necessary at all.

Explaining your concept

Vagueness can come from a few places. Often, the author doesn’t have a clear idea of where their story needs to go, or maybe they do have the concept down in their mind, but they struggle with getting it on the page. Sometimes authors struggle with describing things, especially groups of things, in clear and specific terms. Other times the author is trying to build suspense by hiding details so the reader can’t get a clear picture of what’s going on. I’ll talk about suspense another day, though. For today, I want to focus on using clear and specific language.

Necessary descriptions

There are lots of reasons why an author might have a hard time describing something: they’ve never seen what they’re trying to describe before, they haven’t mastered their character’s narrative voice, they’re not using different angles and senses in their description, or they don’t have a clear idea of their story’s direction. No matter the cause, the outcome tends to be the same–a vague, mushy block of text that doesn’t draw the reader into the scene or tell them anything they need to know.

I may not be able to identify what’s causing vagueness in your writing, but I can show you how to fix it.

Let’s start with a simple sentence: She saw a crowd gathered on one side of the street.

This sentence isn’t economical because there’s still a lot to explain. Who is she and who is the crowd? Why is it gathering, and why is this particular location important? What do they look like? Some might argue that the sentence is leading readers to a description of the crowd, but why waste words on that when you could just get to the point?

First, eliminate filters

A crowd gathered on one side of the street.

This goes for both first and limited third person POV. You hardly ever need filter phrases like “I saw, she heard, he felt.” If you’re doing it right, the reader should know it’s something the POV character is seeing, hearing, feeling, etc. without you having to tell them.

Next, give us more about the people.

There are different ways you can do this, so I’m going to give you a few examples. We might end up adding to the word count of the original sentence, or even expanding it into two or three sentences, but it’s still more economical this way if it saves us from needing paragraphs or pages of explanation. It depends on the context of your story. At any rate, try to use the most specific details you can to describe the people.

Okay: Men gathered on one side of the street.

Better: Miners, still in their work clothes with coal dust blackening their faces, gathered on one side of the street.

Best (?): Coal-blackened miners in coveralls and hard hats gathered on one side of the street.

“Best” is almost always up to personal taste. I think the nonessential adjective clause (the stuff between the commas) makes the “better” example too wordy, but it’s still stronger than our original sentence.

In any case, when you use more specific language in your book, you start to paint an actual picture for your readers. A crowd of people is pretty amorphous. It’s hard to know what to expect from that, and you want your readers to have expectations. That means they want to keep reading your story, because they want to see their expectations fulfilled or even exceeded. In this example, we started out with a gathering of randos and it meant next to nothing. Now we have a group of miners, getting together straight after work, and readers are probably wondering what’s up.

Finally, let’s look at that location

When you have a gathering crowd, people are most likely meeting in a specific place for a reason. Take advantage of that.

Coal-blackened miners in coveralls and hard hats blocked the entrance of the company store.

I feel like this is about as much detail as I can cram into this sentence without it becoming too much for the reader. However, it’s more specific than the original, and it leads the reader to what’s coming next.

It makes people ask “why.” If the miners are blocking the store, there’s probably some purpose behind their actions. Next, you need to show the reader how the POV character feels about the situation, and get on to why the miners are doing what they’re doing.

Vagueness hurts your writing because it doesn’t give your readers anything to care about. The updated sentence is longer than the original one, but it’s more economical because it has more substance. I don’t have to spend several more sentences elaborating on who, what, and where.

Which one of these sentences is more likely to lead you into a story?

She saw a crowd gathered on one side of the street or Coal-blackened miners in coveralls and hard hats blocked the entrance of the company store.

There might be a time and a place for the first example, but I believe the second example is more substantial and more interesting.

One last note about descriptions

Don’t be afraid to engage multiple senses or add dialogue into the mix. There are other things I could have done with the miners–like told you how many of them had gathered, or showed them wielding pickaxes and tools in a menacing way, or maybe indicated that they’re getting together to celebrate something.

But wait, there’s more…

Unfortunately, that will have to wait for next week. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information at once, and this feels like a good stopping point.

Try to practice some of these techniques in your writing, and see if these methods help you write more economically. If you have any questions or anything to add, please feel free to leave a comment below. You can use the contact form instead if you’re feeling shy. Finally, sign up for my mailing list if you’d like to be notified when I publish new posts. Thank you!

16 replies on “Economy of Language 2: Vagueness”

Huh, I think I have a problem with vagueness, not that I write fiction or anything, but more in everything I do. I think I forget that people don’t get to see or think everything I do, causing me to miss out information that might help other people get a complete picture and a better understanding

I think it’s like that for a lot of us. It’s a lot easier to tackle this in writing rather than in speech…You can go back and edit a page of text, but it’s hard to do that in other areas of life.

These are some good techniques. I often need to go back to my blog posts and change sentences so they are clearer but not too ‘clumsy to read. It is something I could still work on though!

Corinne x

What an interesting post. It definitely sounds like this is quite a common habit, so I love your tips for realising it and improving. I’m not a writing but I’m always interested in learning more techniques. Thanks for sharing!

Thank you! You’re right, this is a common habit. I think everyone does it sometimes–and sometimes it’s fine to be a little vague in a story, but other times it’s better to be more specific.

This is such a useful post (and series) for helping people to improve their writing skills. When I’m next writing a blog post, I will try to be more aware of when I’m being too vague – and follow your tips! x

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