Why Precise Writing = Evocative Writing

Make this one tiny change to improve your prose.

You know what really grinds my gears? Writing that reads like this:

There was a loud sound. Bobby got the device from the table and pressed a few buttons. Moments later, the device’s surface showed someone’s face. Bobby smiled and waved at this image, who waved back.

What the heck is going on?

Like most readers, you probably had no idea what is going on in that passage. What was the loud sound? What was the device? How did Bobby get the device? What kind of surface does this device have? Which buttons did he press? Who is Bobby is waving to?

Did you figure out Bobby was answering a video call on his cell phone?

Probably not.

See, to be clear about what is happening, I should have written: Bobby answered Jim’s FaceTime call. 

Or, if I really wanted to show the specifics of answering a video call (say, because my reader is Amish, or because the details of call is important), I could’ve done this:

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Across the room, Bobby’s phone vibrated loudly. He walked over and grabbed the phone from the table and slid his finger across the screen before pressing the green ‘answer’ button. Moments later, Jim’s face appeared on the screen. Bobby smiled and waved at Jim, who waved back.

I didn’t change anything about the story. I only rewrote the passage to be more precise. Let’s break down my changes:

  1. Instead of “a loud sound”, I showed you what was making the sound, and where it was.

  2. Instead of “device”, I used “phone”.

  3. Instead of “got”, I showed Bobby walking to the table and grabbing the phone.

  4. Instead of “pressed a few buttons”, I described exactly which buttons Bobby used.

  5. Instead of “surface”, I used “screen”.

  6. Instead of “someone’s face”, I used “Jim’s face”.

If you’re wondering why professional writers have such captivating prose, it’s usually because they use the precise names of things and you don’t. A piece of bread is meaningless. But a loaf, a slice, or a scrap of bread all have evocative visuals.

Today’s Writing Tip: Whenever appropriate, use precise language in your prose. Precise verbs help the reader understand the action. Precise nouns help the reader see the scene.

Today’s Writing Assignment: Look to your right or left. Write a short passage to describe what’s going on, by being as precise as you can. Aim to write in a way an artist from across the world can sketch the scene you’ve written without further clarification.

In the past, I’ve written a lot about why you should focus on painting a mental picture instead of explaining. (See here and here).

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