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?

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