If you’ve been reading the periodic articles on business writing techniques and strategies found here, you’ve encountered one of my favorite rants – ‘Specific beats Vague’. So, whenever you have a choice between a vague word, like ‘several’ and a specific word like ‘four’, opt for the specific word.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with using ‘several, your reader assumes you know the real number and wonders why you didn’t use it instead. When you use an undefined word, your readers will define it for you … and likely not the way you would have defined it.
I regularly do a brief fun exercise in my writing workshops in which I ask people to write a single number for their definition of ‘several’. The larger the group, the more variety we get. While up to half the group will go with ‘three’ or ‘four’, the other half comes up with numbers up to 10. So, by using a vague word, your readers are likely to decode a different message than you encoded. And it’s not their fault.
My favorite example deals with the acronym ‘ASAP’. We realize that it stands for ‘as soon as possible’, but what does THAT mean?’ immediately? … by the end of the day? … by first thing in the morning? … when I feel like doing it?’ There’s no standard, only an interesting variety of definitions.
Whenever a client asks for something ‘ASAP’, I ask for a specific day and time instead. When I hear ‘By end of the day tomorrow’, I then ask if by 5:00 would work for him or her. I now have a specific target to shot at, a specific client expectation to try to meet. And when I send it by noon the next day, I’ve exceeded that client’s defined expectation. A great way to under-promise and over-deliver!
So … stop using ‘ASAP’ ASAP … or at least within several days!