Improving Your Writing: Generic Words Begone!

Our director, Aaron, hard at work.
Check us out on the screen behind him.
Yesterday, I sat in front of a camera for five hours filming an e-learning course.

As I wrapped up one of the modules, I tried to state a simple and articulate closing to the lesson. I ended up saying:

"Although it may look complicated, this will make your spreadsheets more effective."

Not one of more shining moments.

I laughed after making this statement and said, "Yeah, we need to redo that one."

As I tried to shake off the chuckles, we bandied about useless statements:

  • This will help you with this and that.
  • It's an amazing something.
  • I really love working with this and you'll love it, too.

After we got the sillies out of our system, I did another take:

"Although Index-Match-Match looks complicated, the combination is easy to use once you get the hang of it. And it's a more effective tool than VLookup for evaluating large amounts of data."

Do you see the difference between my two statements?

If you're not familiar with Excel functions, you might not understand what I'm saying in the second one but anyone watching this training video will understand.  The first statement can create confusion in everyone, including those who have watched this course.

Why is the second statement better?

It's specific.

Non-specific, or generic, wording can leave your audience feeling cheated or confused.

This applies to writing, too. Some of the words you want to analyze closely to ensure they can't be replaced with a clear and specific term include:

  • it
  • this
  • that
  • these
  • those

Why does using specific instead of generic words matter?

Notice in my first example, I used "it" and "this." When we speak, we use these words a lot. Most of the time people understand what we're referring to. When you write, or in yesterday's case teach, your language needs to be specific. We do not want any confusion from the reader or listener about what "it" refers to.

Notice "it" does occur twice in my revised statement. You can use words like "it" as long as the reader can understand what "it" refers to.

From the trenches of reality, I provide this suggestion for improving your writing:  search your document for occurrences of generic words. You can start with the list above, but there are plenty of other generic words to track in your writing. For example:

  • Building is generic
  • Skyscraper is specific

  • Bird is generic
  • Crow is specific

  • Boy is generic
  • Toddler is specific

In the examples above, you can add more detail to create a word picture of what you mean. If you look at my revised ending statement for the video yesterday, I made the following changes:

  • It became Index-Match-Match
  • This became The combination (referring back to Index-Match-Match in the sentence)
  • Spreadsheets became Large amounts of data

Generic writing leads to boring writing so pull out your manuscript and check for generic terms. You'll be glad you did.

PS:  The course we shot was Excel Power Functions for Bigger Brains.
The modules are in editing now, but the class will be up in a few months on the Bigger Brains site.


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