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Be Specific - How to Avoid Ambiguity, Jargon & Abstract Writing

Lesson 14 from: From Structure to Style: Master Your Copywriting

Shani Raja

Be Specific - How to Avoid Ambiguity, Jargon & Abstract Writing

Lesson 14 from: From Structure to Style: Master Your Copywriting

Shani Raja

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Lesson Info

14. Be Specific - How to Avoid Ambiguity, Jargon & Abstract Writing

Next Lesson: Quiz - Chapter 3


Class Trailer

Chapter 1: Copywriting Fundamentals


Class Introduction - Overview of the Course Content


The Five Aspirations of a Superior Copywriter


The Importance of Defining Your Intention & Audience


The “Secret Sauce” of Good Copywriting


Quiz - Chapter 1

Chapter 2: Simplicity


Introduction - The Power of Simplicity


Lesson Info

Be Specific - How to Avoid Ambiguity, Jargon & Abstract Writing

in this lesson, you're going to learn why it's so important to avoid a particular type of fuzziness that unfortunately appears a lot in writing something called ambiguity and by the end you'll know how to recognize ambiguity in your writing as well as how to fix it, so that readers never end up getting thrown off course. Now, ambiguity just means leaving readers unsure of what you mean exactly. Because what you're saying could have perhaps more than one interpretation, take this seemingly innocent sentence whose meaning might have seemed obvious enough to the person who wrote it. My older students know that I am extremely careful with my language. Now, did you read it and know exactly what the author meant by older? It may refer to people who have been that writers, students for a long time and are therefore older in that sense of the word, or the writer might be referring to those students who are more advanced of age and therefore older in that sense of the word. Now, sometimes the c...

ontext may make your meaning clear enough. So you may not need to kind of obsess too much about such a sentence. But if that context isn't there for a reader, you're potentially going to lose them. Right, at that point of ambiguity. So let's look at some more examples of ambiguity and practice eliminating every shade of doubt as to what the author could possibly mean in a sentence. The hostility between Mr jones and Mr Farsi intensified after he was crowned headmaster. And what's the ambiguity there. That's right, We don't know which of the two was crowned headmaster, right, Mr jones or Mr Farsi, let's suppose it was Mr jones who was crowned headmaster. Well now you've actually got three basic options for resolving an ambiguity of this type. Firstly, you can make things clearer for your readers by actually renaming the thing about which there is some doubt like this, the hostility between Mr jones and Mr Farsi intensified after Mr jones was crowned headmaster. But this actually isn't a particularly elegant way of resolving the problem because you get there what in journalistic lingo is often referred to as a word echo, where you're basically repeating the name Mr jones in the same sentence, it feels a bit clunky and a little bit ugly partly because it's repetitive, luckily there's a second way to clear up the ambiguity by altering the very structure of the sentence itself. So try doing that yourself first and then I'll show you how I might. Okay, well, how about like this after Mr jones was crowned, had mastered the hostility between him and Mr Farsi intensified. Now that's not the most elegant of sentences either and it's slightly more passive but it's still quite a bit clearer than the original, isn't it? Thankfully though there's yet another way to resolve the ambiguity in the original sentence and that is to characterize Mr jones in some way that the reader will easily recognize? Suppose the previous context made it clear that before his promotion Mr jones had been like a quirky art tutor in the same school as Mr Farsi, how might we resolve the ambiguity by incorporating this fact about Mr jones into the sentence? Well, we could possibly say something like this. The hostility between Mr jones and Mr Farsi intensified after the quirky art teacher was crowned headmaster and that works too right now. The other thing I want you to think about in the context of ambiguity is the confusion sometimes caused by the careless use of the word this, like in this example where the word this refers back to something previously said, this is likely to cause a backlash now it's very common for writers to assume that readers will know exactly what this is referring back to. But in truth, they often don't know. And particularly if a number of different things have been said previously, and that's why we sometimes call this the lazy this in journalism and here is the lazy this in action. We spent much of the past year encouraging staff to work in charity while we focused on growing the business, This gave rise to fresh insights for future action that this here could refer either to the charity work or to the attempts to grow the business or even both. So, how would you pin down the meaning of the sentence if we suppose that the fresh insights here really only relate to the charity work? Well, here's one way of doing it. We spent much of the past year encouraging staff to work in charity while we focused on growing the business, our philanthropy gave rise to fresh insights for future action. In other words aim to give readers the gift of absolute certainty as to what exactly you're referring them back to. So that's ambiguity now pretty much covered. But there are other ways in which a lack of specificity can harm the clarity of your writing. And one big one is the use of jargon. You may have noticed certain buzzwords that crop up time and again in business writing, especially in things like resumes and cover letters. You know, words and phrases like detail oriented, dynamic individual proactive and results driven, that type of thing. Now it can be quite annoying seeing such words appear repeatedly in job applications for instance, particularly if you're an employer looking to actually hire someone. And the reason for that is that such words and phrases are quite generic and non specific. For instance, what exactly is a dynamic individual. Usually it's far better to be precise and specific about your background, your experience and your accomplishments so that potential employers can easily understand what it is that you're saying. Now this abstract stuff doesn't just appear in resumes and cover letters as a journalist. I often came across press releases describing a company, for example as providing customer focused solutions or client centered platforms or value added services and other similar meaningless jargon and I've seen websites describing a company for instance as having an outcomes based orientation or systems aligned procedures or access to the best in class analytical tools. Now, often these are just puffed up words that don't mean very much at all. For instance, would you easily understand this jargon list sentence that you might find on a company's website. For instance, we are the global market leading provider in the wireless space, offering state of the art, value added solutions to satisfied stakeholders across the globe. Now, wouldn't it be a lot clearer if the company just said something like we are the world's most advanced mobile phone operator? So try to avoid vague jargon words, evaluated solutions, stakeholders and other buzzwords if they aren't really useful or really specific. Instead go for language that pins down perfectly well what you mean. And here's another example which one of these is better. I am a dynamic individual and best in class team player dedicated to achieve, evolving an innovative approach to managing workflow environments in the marketing arena of the travel industry or I am the lead graphic designer for the marketing team at flight center Australia's largest travel agent. Now, every word there at least is laden with meaning. So please learn to spot when you're carelessly defaulting to jargon and buzzwords that don't mean that much and challenge yourself to always be clear concrete and specific about what you mean. The good news is that weeding out jargon will make your work stand out hugely from much of the terrible business and online writing that's out there. So that wraps up our section on clarity, the ingredient that gives sharpness to your pros. And that means we're ready to begin exploring elegance, the ingredients that brings order and gracefulness to your writing. But before we do, please go ahead and take the quiz at the end of this video, where you'll have a chance to reflect on and absorb the lessons on clarity that I've given you in this chapter.