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.
1. Don’t use this alone. When the word this stands alone, readers are forced to ask “This what?”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- We may have a number of possible ways to solve the problem.
- I would like your response in a timely manner.
- 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.