What is a vague description?

Vague descriptions occur when writing lacks specific and concrete words and details. Without specificity, writing can become over-generalized, which can make it both inaccurate and uninteresting. When you write, you typically aim to express yourself clearly and to engage readers in whatever you have to say. It’s hard to be clear and engaging when you’re being vague, though.

Are vague descriptions always wrong?

Authors, especially in fiction, will sometimes use vague descriptions to build up suspense or for other purposes. For example, first-person narratives may use vague descriptions to illustrate when a character is falling unconscious.

Often, though, vague descriptions can interfere with the purpose of a piece of writing. For example, instructions for assembling furniture should be very specific. New furniture owners need to know to “Attach Board A to Board B using two hex screws.” Vague instructions that read “Hook the two longish boards together with some screws” won’t be very helpful to someone trying to put a desk together.

Vague descriptions can also affect persuasive writing; if you are not specific about exactly what you are trying to convince the reader to believe, you will not be as successful. Readers typically respond more enthusiastically to concrete details and specific examples rather than vague suggestions of ideas.

How can I tell if I have a vague description?

It can be hard to tell if your writing includes vague descriptions. After all, you already know what you mean to say. To identify vague descriptions, 1) read your writing with your audience in mind, and 2) share your writing with a reader to ask where the descriptions are vague or unclear.

1) Read your writing with your audience in mind. Remember that what you are describing may be completely new for your readers, so they may not know precisely what you’re thinking of when you describe something. 

Ask yourself if your words describe precisely the ideas or sensory perceptions you would like your audience to imagine. Consider the following two sentences: 

Example: The car arrived.

Example: The red porsche slid gracefully into the tight parking spot.

Which sentence gives you a more specific idea of what’s happening? Which sentence is more engaging? Which sentence are you more likely to remember? If you’re like most people, the second sentence probably strikes you as more specific, engaging, and memorable.

That’s because the second sentence avoids vague description. Identifying ineffective vague description is a matter of deciding whether or not your writing contains an appropriate level of detail and specificity to convey meaning precisely to your reader.

2) Share your writing with a reader to ask where the descriptions are vague or unclear. A reader might tell you that “the car arrived” leaves them wondering what kind of car it is. Perhaps the kind of car and how it is parked matters because it tells something about the character of the car’s driver. Readers can let you know when they feel like they’re missing these details.

How can I revise a vague description?

There are a number of ways to revise a vague description to make it more specific and memorable to the reader. These are a few potential revision strategies:

  • Add sensory words referring specifically to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
    • Example: I walked into a room.
    • Revised Example: Quietly, I walked into a dank, heavily furnished room.
  • Replace non-specific adjectives like good, bad, okay, pretty, happy, and sad.
    • Example: The cake tasted good.
    • Revised Example: The strawberry cake tasted fresh and tart.
  • Remove and replace unnecessary qualifiers like sort of and kind of, or replace them with more specific adjectives, adverbs, and verbs.
    • Example: I kind of said I was sort of down.
    • Revised Example: I hinted I was unhappy.

What are some common types of vague descriptions?

There are many kinds of vague descriptions. This list suggests a few types of vague descriptions you can watch out for in your own writing.

  • Not including sensory words referring specifically to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
    • Example: The room was dirty. VS The room was strewn with trash and smelled like a public bathroom.
  • Relying on non-specific adjectives like good, bad, okay, pretty, happy, and sad. These can give a reader only a superficial and general sense of emotion or description.
    • Example: I drove a nice car. VS I drove a fast car.
  • Using qualifiers like sort of, kind of, and generally without further explanation.
    • Example: This textbook is sort of interesting. VS This textbook has interesting graphics, but the writing is boring.
  • Making poor word choices or having wordiness that makes your meaning vague.
    • Example: Jeff performed timely inspections on key nodes in strategically vital business units by engaging and applying client feedback to operationally important points of contact with customers.
    • Revised Example: Jeff reviewed customer feedback and revised policies on responsiveness to customer feedback.

Activity: Identify vague descriptions in the following paragraph.

1. The car arrived. 2. I slid into the leather interior. 3. The seat was okay. 4. I eased the new set of wheels carefully onto the busy street. 5. I drove home.   

Activity: Revise the vague descriptions in the following paragraph to be more specific.

When I got home, it was late. I was tired, so I went to bed. Bed was nice. Sleep was better. I slept until I woke up to a sound. I didn’t know what it was, so I went back to sleep. In the morning, I forgot about it.