Stuff and Things: 1 Tiny Tip to Improve Vague Writing

Stuff and Things: 1 Tiny Tip to Improve Vague Writing

I get a lot of writing advice. A lot. Whether it’s from strangers who want to tell me it’s super important to use the correct form of “there” or online listicles with cat gifs about how to improve and tighten your writing, sometimes life seems like a constant stream of writing tips.

When you’re getting tips from people who don’t know what they’re talking about, people who are overzealous about certain styles, people who let their personal biases sound like hard rules, it can be difficult to discern exactly what you should be listening to and what you should ignore. I try to give every tip a chance, but there are simply so many it’s impossible to keep all of them at the forefront of your thinking when sitting down to write.

One tip I read somewhere and didn’t give much credence to was the advice to keep a careful eye on when and how you use the word “thing” in your writing. While the word is fine in speech and it is contained in some phrases, using it in descriptions and some forms of poetry makes the writing vague. A thing could be anything. Choosing a more exact word strengths the writing and better illustrates what you were trying to describe or discuss.

At first I thought I wouldn’t really need this tip that much because I didn’t think I used the word “thing” extensively in my writing anyway. But once I was looking for it, I noticed the word popping up all over the place. Once I told myself I had to work on being more precise, I found not only my writing improved, but it made me think more critically about what I was writing.

Here’s an example from a poem I was working on:

Original sentence: why did I insist on packing these things or in order to go on a vacation from them?

Here the word “things” is vague. What things am I talking about?

Rewrite: why did I insist on packing these sorrows in order to go on a vacation from them?

Now it’s clear what the line means. The “things” the in previous sentence could be better described as “sorrows”. The word “things” in the sentence was so vague that I could have been describing literally anything. But I wasn’t writing about every concept or object in the world, I was writing about a specific emotion.

Naturally, the word “thing” doesn’t have to leave your vocabulary completely. It is already attached to other words, such as “anything”, which I just used. Also, “something”, “nothing”, and “everything”. But it’s important to be attentive to how you’re using these words and see if you can substitute more exact language for them. When I used “anything” that is the right word for that sentence. I was using it to illustrate how broad the word is. Ambiguity was the point.

In a sea of millions of tips, it can be difficult to find what works for you and what you can use to strengthen your writing. This is just one tip I found helpful among the deluge of advice I am constantly exposed to.

What writing tips have you incorporated into your writing lately?


Hyphens, Ellipses, and Dashes… Oh my! – Part 1: Hyphens

Hyphens, Ellipses, and Dashes… Oh my! – Part 1: Hyphens

By M. Richard Eley

Part 1 — Hyphens

Back in the halcyon days of yore–and typewriters–there was only one choice for a “dash”: the hyphen key.

We all know what happened next: computers ruined our lives with their digital pomposity, smug 102-key keyboards, and self-righteous spell checking.

In the electronic age, we have five different choices for “dash” symbols, and all of them look similar. Each is unique, though, and has a specific use. In this and future articles we’ll explore a few punctuation symbols and their proper place in writing.

A hyphen’s main use is to break or join multiple-word compound terms. The ancient Greek root for hyphen roughly means “into one” or “under one.” It blends two concepts into one idea. Use hyphens with no spaces on either side for creating fragments such as: eye-opener, free-for-all, twenty-five.

Nowadays, some words aren’t hyphenated which were in the past, such as “now-a-days,” for example.

Only use multiple hyphens when meanings would be unclear without them: “a twenty-five-year-old man” is fine with its three hyphens, as compared to “a twenty-five-year old man” which turns a young man into a senior citizen. “Dyed-in-the-wool democrat” tells us what kind of democrat the person is. “Dyed in the wool democrat” may possibly mean we colored something that was stuck inside a woolen democrat. If a phrase acts as a single modifier/concept for a noun, then it’s a likely candidate for multiple hyphens.

Avoid using hyphens to compound “-ly” words, unless they are construed as a single concept and contained within a longer sequence of words. This doesn’t happen often in modern writing except to make a point: “The movie’s rarely-well-directed scenes were disappointing.”

Technically not a dash, the hyphen is much shorter than the other “true” dashes–though many texts make no distinction between hyphens and dashes. It’s something of a gray area, like many other “rules” of grammar and spelling.

To produce a hyphen on most keyboards and operating systems, press either the Hyphen key on the top row (usually located by the Zero key,) or press the Hyphen key on the numeric keypad. Sometimes that’s called the Minus or Subtraction key, but any of those keys produce the same hyphen.

The true minus sign, surprisingly enough, is not produced by the numeric keypad’s key. On a PC running Windows, you can usually hold down the ALT key and type 65293 on the numeric keypad to produce a Unicode minus sign. (Alt-65291 is a Unicode plus sign.)

On a Mac, it’s tricky to get to this symbol and the method depends on your version of OS, but if you can invoke the special characters menu, you’ll see a number of symbols that are available. (Command-Option-T or Command-Option-Space, or from the edit tab, look for “special characters.”)

A minus looks like this: 7 + 2 - 8 = 1. You know it’s a true minus sign, not a hyphen, because it has a little spacing built in, and it’s the same width as the plus sign. Note the visual difference if the smaller hyphen is improperly used for a minus sign: 9-8=1. If a minus sign is misused for compounded words, they’ll look a bit strange: “the blood-red tulips,” verses “the blood-red tulips.”

Note: in the above examples, differences between characters may be hard to discern due to different web browsers, system settings and fonts.

So there you go, all you ever wanted to know about hyphens. Maybe more than you wanted to know, but knowledge is power. In my next article, we’ll look into the mysterious “eN dash.”