Five Ways to Clear Up Fuzzy Writing

When writing is fuzzy, perfectly clear ideas come across as vague, illogical, or ambiguous. Don’t let fuzzy writing undermine your brilliant ideas! Great ideas deserve clear expression. Avoid the five don’ts below to communicate clearly with your audience.

Fuzzy writing

1. Don’t use this alone. When the word this stands alone, readers are forced to ask “This what?”

Fuzzy example:

  • When I wrote the report, I was not aware the driver had left the scene of a serious accident. This has created an unfortunate situation. 

This what has created an unfortunate situation? This lack of awareness? This incomplete report? This driver behavior? The word this leaves the reader guessing. To eliminate fuzzy writing, follow the word this with a noun or a noun phrase that clarifies your meaning. Avoid “This is,” “This means,” and similar constructions.

2. Don’t use i.e. and e.g. Before you read on, define i.e. and e.g. What does each Latin abbreviation mean? If you ask any group of 10 people the meaning of i.e. and e.g., you will get several incorrect explanations for each abbreviation.

Fuzzy example:

  • We recommend that the group focus on just one area of interest, i.e., sustainability.

Which of these meanings does the writer intend?

  • We recommend that the group focus on just one area of interest, that is, sustainability.
  • We recommend that the group focus on just one area of interest, for example, sustainability.

I.e. means “that is.” E.g. means “for example.” But because many people use the abbreviations incorrectly, using them at all is risky. To be clear, use “that is” and “for example.”

3. Don’t let phrases flap in the wind. Tie phrases to the right place in your sentence.

Fuzzy example:

  • Julia is working on a final marketing plan. She will send it to you to edit by Feb. 1.

Who is doing what by Feb. 1?

Use this version if Julia will send the plan by Feb. 1:

  • Julia is working on a final marketing plan. She will send it to you by Feb. 1 so that you can edit it.

Use this version if the reader will edit the plan by Feb. 1:

  • Julia is working on a final marketing plan, which she will send you. Please edit it by Feb. 1.

To recognize when phrases are flapping in the wind, let your writing sit for at least an hour (overnight is better) before proofreading it. A fresh review of your work will help you see fuzzy constructions.

4. Don’t mix singulars and plurals when using pronouns. To clear up your writing, make sure each they, their, our, or other plural pronoun refers to a plural word. If it doesn’t, rewrite the sentence. Such rewriting is easier than you may think.

Fuzzy example:

  • There is a guidebook at each guest’s table. They include the itinerary.

What is they? The plural pronoun they must refer to a plural word, yet the sentence includes no plural nouns.

Clear versions:

  • There is a guidebook at each guest’s table. The guidebook includes the itinerary.
  •  There is a guidebook, which includes the itinerary, at each guest’s table.

 

Fuzzy example:

  • ABC Company is committed to exceeding our customers’ expectations.

Our? If ABC Company is singular and takes the singular verb is, to whom does the plural pronoun our refer?

Clear versions:

  • At ABC Company we are committed to exceeding our customers’ expectations.
  • ABC Company is committed to exceeding its customers’ expectations.
  • ABC Company is committed to exceeding customer expectations.

To write clearly and correctly about your company, decide how you will refer to it—for example, as it or we—and then be consistent.

5. Don’t use vague words and phrases. Vague words and phrases make even the clearest ideas fuzzy.

Fuzzy examples:

  • We may have a number of possible ways to solve the problem.
  • I would like your response in a timely manner.

Clear versions: 

  • We have three ways to solve the problem.
  • I need your response by February 20.

Although your primary readers may understand fuzzy writing because they know the context, your secondary (pass-it-on) readers will wonder what you mean. Defuzz for them. Observe the don’ts above to ensure crisp, clear writing for everyone.

Please add your suggestions. I am traveling in Cuba and not accessing the internet, but I look forward to reading your comments when I return. 

Lynn
Syntax Training

7 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Lynn, your examples are entertaining as always. For the millions of Europeans who see and hear both British and US English, a source of confusion is the British custom of treating an organisation as a plural, as in “ABC Company are committed to exceeding customer expectations”.

  2. Recently the editor at the newspaper – in my submitted article – changed i.e. to ‘that is’ and I thought it was odd. I thought probably some style guide of the newspaper to use full words. Now I understand why she did that. Thanks.

  3. George, thank you for pointing out that difference between British and US English. For more examples, I checked “Garner’s Modern English Usage,” which stated:

    “BrE has gone so far in some contexts that many Americans would suspect a typographical error.” It gives as an example “Oxford were the winners of the of the 136th University Boat Race . . . . ”

    I’ll be watching for those plural verbs.

    Lynn

  4. Great, useful article. One of my pet peeves is “things”. I had a very strict writing teacher once tell me “Don’t you ever again use the word “things” in a paper for me! It’s lazy!

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