Precise Writing

C. Dow Tate
Hillcrest High School
Dallas, Texas

Ultimate Goal
Students will choose precise and accurate nouns, adjectives and verbs to create vivid writing.

What you want to teach:

  • Precise words make writing vivid. The sentence “The dog jumped up on the boy” is a simple statement. When the writer replaces “dog” with “Saint Bernard,” the scene changes dramatically. Or, “When the officer ran past the gate, the dog turned on him” is vague compared with “The officer sprinted past the gate when the Chihuahua turned on him.” If accurate, the images are certainly more vivid.
  • If adjectives are needed, specific adjectives help create powerful images. “The teacher put on his cashmere sweater” is more vivid than “The teacher put on his nice sweater.”
  • Specific details should be relevant to the story being told. If the story is about the furnace failure in the middle of a Minnesota winter, the sentence “The teacher put on his sweater” helps communicate how cold the school room was. Unless the teacher had a choice of sweaters and the reporter’s aim is to profile the teacher, the specific adjective “cashmere” is not needed.
  • How precise is “precise”? Challenging students to look for the perfect verb for a man coming off a roof down a rope will have them using the word “sliding” when “rappelling” may be visually accurate. They need to understand that “rough pants” isn’t as precise as “burlap jeans.”

Ways to teach what you have to teach:

  • Charades. Give students verbs to demonstrate. As in the game of charades, each player pulls a word from a hat and acts it out for classmates to guess. Words on the slips of paper might be various gaits such as “stomp,” “leap,” or “glide.” Teams can be formed and score kept. Someone might be appointed to record guesses on the blackboard so that synonyms can be discussed.
  • Reading for vague words. Give students a strong piece of writing that you have de-edited. Ask them to circle the vague words. Showing them the original piece can help reinforce the point that precise language makes writing stronger.
  • Reading for precise words. Ask each student to copy lyrics from a favorite song and circle precise nouns, verbs or adjectives.
  • Word bans. Announce that a certain word will be banned from the classroom for a period of time. Choose one vague or weasel word per week or month or semester. Discuss words that add nothing to a sentence and ban words like “many,” “few,” “some,” or “very.”
  • Word pictures. Give each small group or pair of students a front page photograph from local newspaper and ask the groups to write a description of their photos. Each group will read its description to the class and then show its photo. Class response to word choice will be best if groups manage to conceal and not reveal their photo until after the reading of their writing has created mental pictures in the listeners’ minds. Structured class response should acknowledge vivid words, phrases and imagery and discuss how the imagery is accurate, precise and relevant. An overhead projector might be helpful.

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