5 – Writing Skills

Precise and Concise Wording

Suzan Last; Anonymous; Matt McKinney; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; Claire Carly-Miles; and Kalani Pattison

Technical writing is precise writing. Vague, overly general, hyperbolic, or ambiguous terms are not appropriate in this type of writing. You do not want to choose words and phrasing that could be interpreted in more than one way. Instead, select words that most accurately convey your point. Below are some guidelines and examples to follow for using precise wording.

Replace abstract nouns with verbs. Verbs, more than nouns, help convey ideas concisely, so where possible, avoid using nouns derived from verbs. Often these abstract nouns end in –tion and –ment. See examples in the following Table 5.1.

Table 5.1. Abstract nouns and verbs.

Abstract Noun Verb
acquisition acquire
analysis analyze
recommendation recommend
observation observe
application apply
confirmation confirm
development develop
ability able, can
assessment assess

Prefer short words to long words and phrases. The goal is to communicate directly and plainly, so use short, direct words whenever possible. In other words, avoid long words or phrases when short ones will do. Table 5.2 offers examples of long words and phrases, and the shorter options you can use to replace them.

Table 5.2. Long and short words.

Long Short
cognizant; be cognizant of aware, know
commence; commencement begin, beginning
utilize; utilization use (v), use (n)
inquire; make an inquiry ask
finalize; finalization complete, end
afford an opportunity to permit, allow
at this point in time now, currently
due to the fact that because, due to
has the ability to can

Avoid clichés. Clichés are expressions that you have probably heard and used hundreds of times. They are over-used expressions that have largely lost their meaning and impact. Table 5.3 provides examples of clichés and alternatives you could use.

Table 5.3. Clichés and alternatives.

Cliché Alternative
as plain as day plainly, obvious, clear
ballpark figure about, approximately
few and far between rare, infrequent
needless to say of course, obviously
last but not least finally, lastly
as far as____is concerned according to...

Avoid cluttered constructions. This category includes redundancies and unnecessary repetition. Table 5.4 shows examples of redundancies and how to fix them.

Table 5.4. Redundancies.

Redundancies
combine/join together fill completely unite as one
finish entirely refer/return/revert back to emphasize/stress strongly
examine closely suddenly interrupt better/further enhance
eventually evolve over time strictly forbid rely/depend heavily
plan ahead harshly condemn protest against
completely surround on all sides estimate/approximate roughly gather/assemble together
clearly articulate carefully consider successfully prove
future plan mutual agreement years of age
in actual fact positive benefits end results/product

Use accurate wording. Sometimes accuracy requires more words instead of fewer, so do not sacrifice clarity for brevity. Make sure your words convey the meaning you intend. Avoid using words that have several possible meanings; do not leave room for ambiguity or alternate interpretations of your ideas. Readers of technical writing tend to choose literal meanings, so avoid figurative language that might be confusing (for example, using metaphors such as “at the end of the day” instead of “in conclusion”).

Separate facts from opinions by using phrases like “we recommend” or “in our opinion.” Use consistent terminology rather than looking for synonyms that may be less precise.

Qualify statements that need qualifying, especially if there is possibility for misinterpretation. Avoid overusing intensifiers like “extremely,” and avoid absolutes like “never, always, all, none,” as these are almost never accurate. We tend to overuse qualifiers and intensifiers in American English, so below are some that you should be aware of and consider whether you are using them effectively. See Table 5.5 for examples of overused intensifiers and Table 5.6 for examples of overused qualifiers.

Table 5.5. Overused intensifiers.

Overused Intensifiers
absolutely actually assuredly certainly clearly completely
considerably definitely effectively extremely fundamentally drastically
highly in fact incredibly inevitably indeed interestingly
markedly naturally of course particularly significantly surely
totally utterly very really remarkably tremendously

Table 5.6. Overused qualifiers.

Overused Qualifiers
apparently arguably basically essentially generally hopefully
in effect in general kind of overall perhaps quite
rather relatively seemingly somewhat sort of virtually

For a comprehensive list of words and phrases that should be used with caution, see G. Kim Blank’s “Wordiness, Wordiness, Wordiness List.”[1]

Use gender pronouns inclusively and mindfully. The pronouns we choose when crafting technical documents help us to establish rapport with our audience and combat harmful gender stereotypes that are prevalent in technical and professional discourses. If you know the gender of the person(s) whom you are discussing, always use the pronouns they identify with.

However, if you are using a hypothetical person to demonstrate a point (as this textbook often does), use the singular “they/them.” Doing so is a courtesy towards people who are non-binary and may not feel included by “he or she,” or simply “he” or “she.” Using “they/them” also helps in delinking professional positions and roles from gender stereotypes (for example, referring to a hypothetical CEO as “he” or a nurse as “she”). See Chapter 15 for discussion on gender pronouns in correspondence.

Use the active voice. The active voice emphasizes the person/thing doing the action in a sentence. For example, in “The outfielder threw the ball,” the subject, “outfielder,” actively performs the action of the verb “throw.” The passive voice emphasizes the recipient of the action. In other words, something is being done to something by somebody: “The ball was thrown by the outfielder.” Passive constructions are generally wordier and often leave out the person/thing doing the action. Table 5.7 provides a comparison of active and passive voice constructions.

Table 5.7. Active and passive voice.

Active Passive
Subject→Verb→Object Subject ←Verb ←Object
Subject → actively does the action of the verb → to the object of the sentence Subject ← passively receives the action of the verb ← from the object
Subject → acts → on object Subject ← is acted upon ← by the object

In some situations, the passive voice can be useful, such as when you want to emphasize the receiver of an action or the action itself, as the subject of the sentence. Passive voice can also be helpful if you want to avoid using first person. However, overusing the passive voice results in writing that is wordy, vague, and stuffy. When possible, use the active voice to convey who or what performs the action of the verb.

Choose Precise Words

To increase understanding, choose precise words that paint as vivid and accurate a mental picture as possible for your audience. If you use language that is vague or abstract, your meaning may be lost or misinterpreted. Your document or presentation will also be less dynamic and interesting than it could be.

Table 5.8 “Precisely What Are You Saying?” lists some examples of phrases that are imprecise and precise. Which one evokes a more dynamic image in your imagination?

Table 5.8. Precisely what are you saying?

Imprecise Precise
It is important to eat a healthy diet during pregnancy. Eating a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products can improve your health during pregnancy and boost your chances of having a healthy baby.
We are making good progress on the project. In the two weeks since inception, our four-member team has achieved three of the six objectives we identified for project completion; we are on track to complete the project in another three to four weeks.
For the same amount spent, we expected more value added. We have examined several proposals in the $10,000 range, and they all offer more features than what we see in the $12,500 system ABC Corp. is offering.
Officers were called to the scene. Responding to a 911 call, State Police Officers Arellano and Chavez sped to the intersection of County Route 53 and State Highway 21.
The victim went down the street. The victim ran screaming to the home of a neighbor, Mary Lee of 31 Orchard Street.
Several different colors are available. The silk jacquard fabric is available in ivory, moss, cinnamon, and topaz colorways.
A woman was heckled when she spoke at a healthcare event. On August 25, 2009, Rep. Frank Pallone (Democrat of New Jersey’s 6th congressional district) hosted a “town hall” meeting on health care reform where many audience members heckled and booed a woman in a wheelchair as she spoke about the need for affordable health insurance and her fears that she might lose her home.

As with all audience-driven communication, the goal of professional and technical writing is to be understood. In the above examples, the writer adds information crucial to helping the audience understand the full picture. The added clarification is therefore also concise as it does not contain “empty” words and phrases that do not add to understanding.

Note

Precision and conciseness are not mutually exclusive. Being concise does not mean to be brief; likewise, being precise does not mean to be long-winded.

The Importance of Verbs

Much of the style advice given so far revolves around the importance of verbs. Think of your sentence as a machine and the verb as the engine that makes the machine work. Like machines, sentences can function efficiently or inefficiently, and the use of a strong verb is one way to make them work effectively. Here are some key principles regarding the effective use of verbs in your sentences. While effective sentences may occasionally deviate from the suggestions in this list, try to follow these guidelines as often as possible:

  • Keep the subject and the verb close together; avoid separating them with words or phrases that could create confusion.
  • Place the verb near the beginning of the sentence (and close to the subject).
  • Maintain a high verb/word ratio in your sentence.
  • Prefer active verb constructions over passive ones.
  • Avoid “to be” verbs (am, is, are, was, were, being, been, be).
  • Turn nominalizations (abstract nouns) back into verbs.

Use the verb strength chart in Table 5.9 as a guide to “elevate” weaker verbs (or words with implied action) in a sentence to stronger forms.

Table 5.9. Verb strength chart.

Verb Strength Verb Form Examples
A double ended arrow labelled Strong at the top and Weak at the bottom Command/Imperative Maintain the machine properly.

Write the report!

Active Indicative
( Subject→Verb)
He maintains the machine regularly.

She often writes reports.

Active Conditional
(if statements)
She would maintain the machine if he would let her.

If he had more training, he would write reports.

Gerunds (___-ing)

Infinitives (to___)

(These do not function as verbs in your sentence; gerunds and infinitives are in italics, while actual verbs are in bold text.)

While maintaining the machine, he gets quite dirty.

Writing a report takes skill.

It takes a lot of time to maintain this machine.

To write effectively, one must understand the audience.

Passive
(Subject←Verb)
The machine is maintained by him.

The report was written by her.

Passive Conditional It would be maintained by her if…

Reports would be written by him if...

Nominalizations (verbs turned into abstract nouns)

Participles (nouns or adjectives that used to be verbs)

(These do not function as verbs in your sentence. Nominalizations and participles are italics; actual verbs are in bold text.)

Machine maintenance is dirty work.

A well-maintained machine is a thing of beauty.

Written work must be free of errors.

While you are not likely to use the command form very often (unless you are writing instructions), the second strongest form, , is the one you want to use most often (in about 80% of your sentences).

Part of the skill of using active verbs lies in choosing the verbs that precisely describe the action you want to convey. Because they are used frequently, common verbs such as “be,” “do,” “get,” and “have” possess multiple meanings and appear in a variety of idioms. Using these verbs therefore can lead to unintentional ambiguity. Whenever possible, avoid these general verbs and use more precise, descriptive verbs, as indicated in Table 5.10.

Table 5.10. General verbs and descriptive verbs.

General Verbs Descriptive Verbs
Signal Verbs:

Says

States

Talks about

Discusses

Writes

Describe the rhetorical purpose behind what the deliverer “says”:

Explains, clarifies

Describes, illustrates

Claims, argues, maintains

Asserts, stresses, emphasizes

Recommends, urges, suggests

Is, are, was, were being, been

Is ___-ing

Instead of indicating what or how something “is,” describe what it DOES, by choosing a precise, active verb.

Replace progressive form (is ___ing) with indicative form

She is describing > She describes

Get, gets

Usually too colloquial (or passive); instead, try:

Become, prepare,

acquire, obtain, receive, contract, catch,

achieve, earn,

understand, appreciate

Do, does Avoid using the emphatic tense in formal writing:

It does work > It works

Instead: Perform, prepare, complete, etc.

Has, have

Has to, have to

This verb has many potential meanings. Find a more specific verb than “have/has” or “has to”:

She owns a car.

They consume/eat a meal.

The product includes many optional features.

The process entails several steps.

Instead of “have to” try one of these options:

Must, require, need

Table 5.11 summarizes poor style characteristics that you should try to avoid while writing technical and professional documents, as well as effective style characteristics that you should strive to implement.

Table 5.11. Key characteristics of effective professional style.

Poor Style Effective Style
Low VERB/WORD ratio per sentence High VERB/WORD ratio per sentence
Excessive "to be" verbs Concrete, descriptive verbs
Excessive passive verb constructions Active verb constructions
Abstract or vague nouns Concrete and specific nouns
Many prepositional phrases Few prepositional phrases
Subject and verb are separated by words or phrases Subject and verb are close together
Verb is near the end of the sentence Verb is near the beginning of the sentence
Main idea (subject-verb relationship) is difficult to find Main idea is clear
Sentence must be read more than once to understand Meaning is clear the first time you read it
Long, rambling sentences Precise, specific sentences

This text was derived from

Last, Suzan, with contributors Candice Neveu and Monika Smith. Technical Writing Essentials: Introduction to Professional Communications in Technical Fields. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 2019. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

University of Minnesota. Business Communication for Success. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing, 2015. https://open.lib.umn.edu/businesscommunication/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


  1. G. Kim Blank, “Wordiness, Wordiness, Wordiness List,” University of Victoria, last modified November 3, 2015, http://web.uvic.ca/~gkblank/wordiness.html.

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Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication by Suzan Last; Anonymous; Matt McKinney; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; Claire Carly-Miles; and Kalani Pattison is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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