You are currently browsing the daily archive for 20 May 2010.
I’ve made brief reference at least once on the blog to the importance of precision in writing. And there’s plenty of material to be written about that. The crux of the matter, though, is having a good sense of the words you’re using and how they work together with each other. Does that sound simple? Well, often it’s far from it.
Let’s look at it mathematically for a second. In a 19-word sentence like this one, the writer has to consider the relationships between 171 pairs of words. To be sure, many of those interactions are tenuous or harmless (and much of the time, we assess them quickly and unconsciously), but that’s still 171 chances for a misstep. And as any pharmacist will tell you, all it takes is a single bad interaction between two items, and a patient’s life can be in danger.
Thankfully, the sentences that most of us write tend not to be life-and-death matters. Take a gander at this excerpt from a marketing case study:
The installation featured listening stations with large, high-definition screens that gave each guest one-on-one interaction with the organization’s cause.
Let’s zero in on the term one-on-one for a minute, making sure we have a good sense of its meaning. One-on-one describes a situation where two people at a time — and only two people — are involved. (In fact, the phrase was first used as a sports term.) That definition may seem pretty obvious, but it becomes important when we examine it in context with the larger clause and the full sentence.
At the event described here, we’re talking about a group of people, not just two, which by itself doesn’t disqualify the term. A room full of people can be experiencing one-on-one interaction — say, if they’re speed dating, or ballroom dancing, or playing Battleship. But here, it’s one person at a time interacting with a video screen, not another person. So one-on-one doesn’t quite fit. Another word, like individual, would be a better choice:
The installation featured listening stations with large, high-definition screens that gave each guest individual interaction with the organization’s cause.
For the bonus round, let’s ask a few more questions about the relationships between these words, keeping both precision and concision in mind. For example: Were the guests truly interacting with a cause, or with something less lofty? Can you really give someone interaction, or was some other type of action taking place? Also, is there any missing information that would help describe the event more exactly? Can we eliminate any unnecessary details?
After all of these issues are addressed, here’s one possible revision:
The installation featured listening stations with high-definition screens and headphones, where guests could interact individually with video about the organization’s cause.
Is your head spinning yet? This all may seem like we’re splitting hairs, but good writers and editors learn to skillfully navigate nuances like these, and their readers are all the better for it.