Lesson Nine

Choosing the Right Words

This unit bolsters the units on trimming fat and reducing jargon. In those units, we focused on economy and simplicity of expression. As we’ve seen, when writers reduce the length and difficulty of their words and phrases–without harming meaning–they create better sentences. When they do those things AND increase the precision, vividness, beauty, and force of their words, they create even better sentences. But remember, the right word or phrase is not always the shortest word or phrase. For example, the more precise expression sometimes requires more words than the less precise one. That doesn’t mean we can let fat or unnecessary jargon back into our sentences; on the contrary. It means finding the right words. Let’s first consider precision in professional writing.


Technical/professional communication must be precise. Everyone understands this as it applies to mathematical quantities; if the formula calls for .86 milliliters of X, then by George the tech writer better write .86 milliliters and not change it to one milliliter. In fact, we understand the need for precision in relation to just about anything quantified or measured. But we sometimes get lax about naming objects and actions precisely.

For example: you’ve heard of the Ladder of Abstraction. If we call the high end of the ladder the Very Abstract or General end and the low end the Concrete or Specific one, we might arrange a series of classifications on it like this:

Motorized transportation

Motorized aircraft
Commercial motorized aircraft

Commercial prop planes
Commercial twin engine prop planes

Piper 1200 Twin Engine prop planes
Piper 1200 Twin Engine Deluxe prop planes

The Piper 1200 Twin Engine Deluxe prop plane that ACME Corp. uses for flying guests to its vacation island

So, at the General end of the ladder, we can write:

“ACME Corporation will transport guests to the vacation island.”

But for the purpose of giving those potential guests a bit more thrill, or at least a more concrete sense of what they’re in for, we could write:
“ACME Corporation will fly guests to the vacation island on its Deluxe Piper 1200 Twin-Engine Prop Plane.” Same idea, expressed more concretely.

Or perhaps, if we’d like to reduce the number of prepositional phrases:
“ACME’s Deluxe Piper 1200 Twin-Engine Prop Plane will fly you to the vacation island.”

At this point, we may want to add that the Piper will “fly you in comfort to the vacation island.” Hmm, not very specific. How about, “will pamper you with champagne, peeled jumbo shrimp, and filet mignon as you streak towards our sun-baked, white-sand, bikini-dotted island”? Ah. I believe you’ve convinced me to sign on with ACME.

I’m not saying that you’ll want to come all the way down the ladder for every idea in your sentence; that would be absurd… but you should come down for some key terms. Let’s practice that.

View Worksheet.