Section 3.1

Precision

Much business writing suffers from a lack of precision, largely because it is more difficult to be specific than it is to be vague. Specific writing requires more careful thought and more thoughtful writing and rewriting.

Suppose you are a managing director reading an annual performance review that one of your vice presidents wrote about an employee, Brad, in your department. You encounter the following sentence, which appears in the review without elaboration:

Brad does consistently sloppy work.

You have no way of knowing what exactly is meant by sloppy. Does he have messy handwriting? Does he spill his lunch on his documents? Does he fail to proofread his e-mail carefully?

Let’s replace the above sentence with the following:

Brad’s proposals consistently contain mathematical and other factual errors.

Now we — and Brad’s managing director, and Brad himself — can understand what the problem is. Perhaps Brad will have a chance to improve the quality of his proposals, enhance his overall performance, and ultimately contribute more to the company. This example illustrates how good writing can be good business.

It can be useful to think of your blank screen, or blank piece of paper, as an artist’s blank canvas. Unless you paint your ideas clearly on that page, your audience won’t see what you wish to communicate. Where relevant, it helps if you use language that appeals to one or more of the five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch.

For instance, imagine you must write a brochure promoting a new hotel. Compare these two sentences:

All of our rooms overlook a beautiful lake.

From your room, you can look out over the blue waters of Charles Pond, home to dozens of turtles and a pair of swans.

What is the difference between the two? Unlike the first sentence, the second appeals to the senses with specific visual images. You can actually picture the scene.

Which of the two sentences is more tempting marketing copy? Unless you have a strong aversion to turtles and swans, you will probably respond more positively to the second.

Besides specificity, precise writing requires the right word for the right occasion. Consider the following sentence:

During the next year, we intend to accelerate our market share in the financial services sector.

The writer has misused the word accelerate, which involves increasing the speed of something. Since one can’t increase the speed of market share, this is the wrong word. In this case, the more mundane — and more accurate — increase would be a good substitute.

Editing for word choice problems requires a critical eye and attention to detail. It also requires a good dictionary. Early drafts will naturally contain wording problems.

As with other rewriting activities, you may get better results if you can put a document away for a while and return to it fresh at a later time.