2.2 Communicating with Precision

So far we have discussed the importance of writing with the reader in mind; of striking the right tone for your audience, message, and purpose; of writing constructively; and of writing persuasively. Now we move onto the actual writing itself.  Two key characteristics of professional technical communication are that it is precise and concise. This precision and concision must be evident at all levels, from the overall document, to paragraphing, to sentence structure to word choice, and even to punctuation. Every word or phrase should have a distinct and useful purpose.  If it doesn’t, cut it or revise.

The 7 Cs of Professional Writing

The 7 C’s are simply seven words that begin with C that characterize strong professional style. Applying the 7 C’s of professional communication will result in writing that is

  • Clear
  • Coherent
  • Concise
  • Concrete
  • Correct
  • Complete
  • Courteous.

CLEAR writing involves knowing what you want to say before you say it because often a lack of clarity comes from unclear thinking or poor planning; this, unfortunately, leads to confused or annoyed readers. Clear writing conveys the purpose of the document immediately to the reader; it matches vocabulary to the audience, avoiding jargon and unnecessary technical or obscure language while at the same time being precise. In clarifying your ideas, ensure that each sentence conveys one idea, and that each paragraph thoroughly develops one unified concept.

COHERENT writing ensures that the reader can easily follow your ideas and your train of thought. One idea should lead logically into the next through the use of transitional words and phrases, structural markers, planned repetition, sentences with clear subjects, headings that are clear, and effective and parallel lists. Writing that lacks coherence often sounds “choppy” and ideas seem disconnected or incomplete. Coherently connecting ideas is like building bridges between islands of thought so the reader can easily move from one idea to the next.

CONCISE writing uses the least words possible to convey the most meaning while still maintaining clarity. Avoid unnecessary padding, awkward phrasing, overuse of “to be” forms (is, are, was, were, am, be, being), long preposition strings, vagueness, unnecessary repetition and redundancy. Use active verbs whenever possible, and take the time to choose a single word rather than a long phrase or cliched expression. Think of your word count like a budget; be cost effective by making sure every word you choose does effective work for you.  Cut a word, save a buck! As William Zinsser asserts, “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”[1]

CONCRETE writing involves using specific, precise language to paint a picture for your readers so that they can more easily understand your ideas. If you have to explain an abstract concept or idea, try to use examples, analogies, and precise language to illustrate it. Use measurable descriptors whenever possible; avoid vague terms like “big” or “good.” Try to get your readers to “see” your ideas by using specific terms and descriptions.

CORRECT writing uses standard English punctuation, sentence structure, usage, and grammar. Being correct also means providing accurate information, as well as using the right document type and form for the task.

COMPLETE writing includes all requested information and answers all relevant questions. The more concrete and specific you are, the more likely your document will be complete as well. Review your checklist of specifications before submitting your document to its intended reader.

COURTEOUS writing entails designing a reader-friendly, easy-to-read document; using tactful language and appropriate modes of addressing the audience; and avoiding potentially offensive terminology, usage, and tone. As we have discussed in an early section, without courtesy you cannot be constructive.

In some cases, some of these might come into conflict: what if being too concise results in a tone that sounds terse, or an idea that seems incomplete? Figure 2.2.1 illustrates one method of putting all the 7Cs together.

An ordered list of all the 7Cs with summarized tips for each one. Image description available.
Figure 2.2.1 Putting all the 7Cs together [Image description]

Be mindful of the tradeoffs, and always give priority to being clear: writing that lacks clarity cannot be understood and therefore cannot achieve its purpose. Writing that adheres to the 7 C’s helps to establish your credibility as a technical professional.

H5P Instructions: Review and practice the 7 C’s of Professional Writing by taking this short quiz. There are 14 questions.

H5P: Practicing the 7 C’s of Communication

This short quiz will test your knowledge of the 7 C’s of communication and offer practice exercises.

  1. Which of the following strategies will ensure your writing is clear? Choose all that apply.
    1. Avoiding jargon and unnecessarily techincal or obsure language.
    2. Matching the vocabulary to the audience.
    3. Planning what to say.
    4. Showing purpose.
  2. Mark the words that could be removed from this sentence without losing the meaning of the sentence and making the meaning clearer. *Hint: You can remove 12 words.
    • He dropped out of school on account of the fact that it was necessary for him to help support his family.
  3. Which strategies will ensure your writing is coherent? Choose all that apply.
    1. Using parallel lists or parallelism.
    2. Logical organization.
    3. Proper use of transition words.
    4. Using planned repetition of words.
    5. Using sentences with clear subjects.
  4. Which of the following sentences shows a good parallel list? Choose all that apply. *Look at the form of the verbs.
    1. I like to swim, to read, and to cook.
    2. I like swimming, reading, and to cook.
    3. I like swimming, reading, and cooking.
  5. Which strategies would you undertake to ensure your writing is concise? Choose all that apply.
    1. Avoiding unnecessary padding such as “there are,” “really,” or “a lot.”
    2. Avoid the overuse of “to be” verb forms.
    3. Using active verbs.
    4. Choosing a single word rather than a long phrase.
  6. Drag the more concise synonym into the correct boxes.
    1. Very noisy
    2. Very often
    3. Very simple
    4. Very open
    5. Very detailed
    6. Very angry
    7. Very rich
    8. Very dull
    9. Very scared
    10. Very shiny
    1. Deafening
    2. Transparent
    3. Meticulous
    4. Gleaming
    5. Tedious
    6. Wealthy
    7. Frequently
    8. Petrified
    9. Basic
    10. Furious
  7. Which of the following are strategies to ensure your writing is concrete? Choose all that apply.
    1. Use short sentences to break your complex ideas into manageable chunks.
    2. Use measurable terms.
    3. Use examples and analogies to explain abstract concepts and ideas.
    4. Use specific, precise language.
  8. Mark the specific, precise, or measurable language in the following set of sentences.
    1. We ate the whole carton of Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream. (3 words)
    2. The mother grizzly bear had three cubs with her. (2 words)
    3. Put the cookies in a 350 degrees Fahrenheit oven for twelve minutes. (4 words)
    4. He took the 7:00 am flight with Air Canada to Vancouver. (3 words)
    5. The Vancouver Canucks won the game with a 4 point lead. (2 words)
  9. Which strategies will ensure your writing is correct? Choose all that apply.
    1. Providing accurate information.
    2. Using proper referencing styles, such as APA or MLA.
    3. Using proper punctuation and sentence structure.
    4. Using the right document type and form for the task.
  10. Which strategies will ensure your writing is correct? Choose all that apply.
    1. Providing accurate information.
    2. Using proper referencing styles, such as APA or MLA.
    3. Using proper punctuation and sentence structure.
    4. Using the right document type and form for the task.
  11. Which strategies will ensure your writing is complete? Choose all that apply.
    1. Is as concrete and specific as possible.
    2. Answers all relevant questions.
    3. Includes all requested information.
  12. One way to ensure complete communication is to avoid cliches and use concrete and specific terms instead. Identify the clichés in the sentences below and reflect on what would be a better word/term to use.
    1. The ballpark figure for my new apartment is $2,000.00 per month.
    2. I am dog tired from the move yesterday.
    3. We went flat out for eight hours straight.
    4. It was better than forking out another $500.00 for a moving company.
  13. Courteous writing includes which of the following strategies: Choose all that apply.
    1. Is easy-to-read.
    2. Uses tactful language.
    3. Avoid potentially offensive terminology.
    4. Designing a reader-friendly document.
  14. Potentially offensive terminology includes stereotypes, biased, or sexist language. Match the more courteous word into the revised sentences below. Words: Humanity, chairperson, impaired night vision.
    1. Elderly drivers should have their license limited to daytime driving only. Drivers with                 should have their licenses limited to daytime driving only.
    2. The chairman called the meeting to order. The                 called the meeting to order.
    3. Man has not reached the limits of social justice.                  has not reached the limits of social justice

EXERCISE 2.5 Revise for clarity

Remember the librarian’s “garbled memo” from the Case Studies in 1.4 Case Study: The Cost of Poor Communication? Try revising it so that it adheres to the 7 Cs; make it clear, coherent, concrete and concise, while also being complete, courteous and correct.


When workloads increase to a level requiring hours in excess of an employee’s regular duty assignment, and when such work is estimated to require a full shift of eight (8) hours or more on two (2) or more consecutive days, even though unscheduled days intervene, an employee’s tour of duty shall be altered so as to include the hours when such work must be done, unless an adverse impact would result from such employee’s absence from his previously scheduled assignment.

Sentence Variety and Length

While variety makes for interesting writing, too much of it can also reduce clarity and precision. Technical writing tends to use simple sentence structures more often than the other types. That said, simple does not necessarily mean “simplistic,” short, or lacking in density. Remember that in grammatical terms, simple just means that it has one main clause (one subject and one predicate). You can still convey quite a bit of concrete information in a simple sentence.

The other consideration for precise writing is length. Your sentences should vary in length just as they can vary in type. However, you want to avoid having too many long sentences because they take longer to read and are often more complex. That is appropriate in academic writing but less so in technical writing. The goal is to aim for an average of around 20 to 30 words per sentence. Reserve the short sentences for main points and use longer sentences for supporting points that clarify or explain cause and effect relationships. If you feel the sentence is too long, break it into two sentences. You do not want your reader to have to read a sentence twice to understand it. If you make compound or complex sentences, ensure that you use appropriate coordinating or subordinating strategies to make the relationship between clauses perfectly clear. See Appendix E to review specific information on simple, compound, and complex sentence structures.

Precise Wording

Technical writing is precise writing. Vague, overly general, hyperbolic or subjective/ambiguous terms are simply not appropriate in this genre. You do not want to choose words and phrasing that could be interpreted in more than one way. For example, if you asked someone to define what makes a “good dog,” you might get responses like “obedient, effective hunter/retriever, well-behaved, affectionate, loyal, therapeutic, goofy” and “all dogs are good!” Choose words that most precisely, concisely, and accurately convey the idea you want to convey. Below are some guidelines and examples to follow for using precise wording.

1. Replace Abstract Nouns with Verbs.

Verbs, more than nouns, help convey ideas concisely, so where possible, avoid using nouns derived from verbs. Often these abstract nouns end in –tion and –ment. See examples in the following chart.

Abstract Noun Verb
acquisition acquire
analysis analyze
recommendation recommend
observation observe
application apply
confirmation confirm
development develop
ability able, can
assessment assess

2. Prefer Short Words to Long Words and Phrases.

The goal is to communicate directly and plainly so use short, direct words whenever possible. In other words, don’t use long words or phrases when short ones will do. Write to express, not impress.

Long Short
cognizant; be cognizant of aware, know
commence; commencement begin, beginning
utilize; utilization use (v), use (n)
inquire; make an inquiry ask
finalize; finalization complete, end
afford an opportunity to permit, allow
at this point in time now, currently
due to the fact that because, due to
has the ability to can

3. Avoid Clichés.

Clichés are expressions that you have probably heard and used hundreds of times. They are over-used expressions that have largely lost their meaning and impact.

Clichés Alternatives
as plain as day plainly, obvious, clear
ballpark figure about, approximately
few and far between rare, infrequent
needless to say of course, obviously
last but not least finally, lastly
as far as      is concerned ?

4. Avoid Cluttered Constructions.

This category includes redundancies, repetitions, and “there is/are” and “it is” constructions.

Redundant phrase Redundancy removed
combine/join together combine/join
fill completely fill
finish entirely finish
refer/return/revert back to refer/return/revert to
suddenly interrupt interrupt
eventually evolve over time evolve
strictly forbid forbid
plan ahead plan
harshly condemn condemn
completely surround on all sides surround
estimate/approximate roughly estimate/approximate
clearly articulate articulate
carefully consider consider
future plan plan
mutual agreement agreement
in actual fact in fact
positive benefits  benefits
unite as one unite
emphasize/stress strongly emphasize/stress
better/further enhance enhance
rely/depend heavily rely/depend
gather/assemble together gather/assemble
successfully prove prove
protest against protest
years of age years
end result/product result/product

5. Use Accurate Wording.

Sometimes this requires more words instead of fewer, so do not sacrifice clarity for concision. Make sure your words convey the meaning you intend. Avoid using words that have several possible meanings; do not leave room for ambiguity or alternate interpretations of your ideas. Keep in mind that readers of technical writing tend to choose literal meanings, so avoid figurative language that might be confusing (for example, using the word “decent” to describe something you like or think is good). Separate facts from opinions by using phrases like “we recommend,” “we believe,” or “in our opinion.” Use consistent terminology rather than looking for synonyms that may be less precise.

Qualify statements that need qualifying, especially if there is possibility for misinterpretation. Do not overstate through the use of absolutes and intensifiers.  Avoid overusing intensifiers like “extremely,” and avoid absolutes like “never, always, all, none” as these are almost never accurate. Remember Obiwan Kenobi’s warning:

“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”[2]

We tend to overuse qualifiers and intensifiers, so below are some that you should be aware of and consider whether you are using them effectively.

Overused Intensifiers

  • absolutely
  • actually
  • assuredly
  • certainly
  • clearly
  • completely
  • considerably
  • definitely
  • effectively
  • extremely
  • fundamentally
  • drastically
  • highly
  • in fact
  • incredibly
  • inevitably
  • indeed
  • interestingly
  • markedly
  • naturally
  • of course
  • particularly
  • significantly
  • surely
  • totally
  • utterly
  • very
  • really
  • remarkably
  • tremendously

Overused Qualifiers

  • apparently
  • arguably
  • basically
  • essentially
  • generally
  • hopefully
  • in effect
  • in general
  • kind of
  • overall
  • perhaps
  • quite
  • rather
  • relatively
  • seemingly
  • somewhat
  • sort of
  • virtually

For a comprehensive list of words and phrases that should be used with caution, see Kim Blank’s “Wordiness, Wordiness, Wordiness List.” [3]

6. Prefer the Active Voice.

The active voice emphasizes the person/thing doing the action in a sentence. For example, The outfielder throws the ball. The subject, “outfielder” actively performs the action of the verb “throw.” The passive voice emphasizes the recipient of the action. In other words, something is being done to something by somebody: The ball was thrown (by the outfielder). Passive constructions are generally wordier and often leave out the person/thing doing the action.

Active Passive
S →V →O S ←V ←O
Subject → actively does the action of the verb → to the object of the sentence Subject ← passively receives the action of the verb ← from the object
Subject → acts → on object Subject ← is acted upon ← by the object

While the passive voice has a place—particularly if you want to emphasize the receiver of an action as the subject of the sentence, or the action itself, or you want to avoid using first person—its overuse results in writing that is wordy, vague, and stuffy. When possible, use the active voice to convey who or what performs the action of the verb.

Use the following H5P activity to practice identifying sentences written in the active or passive voice.

H5P: Recognizing Active and Passive Voice

Review the following sentences and identify if they are written in active or passive voice. If you are unsure, look at how the sentences are structured and identify the subject.

  1. The project team will discuss the report.
  2. The report will be discussed by the project team.
  3. Scholarship funding will be managed by the university.
  4. The university manages all scholarship funding.
  5. The scholarship officer must review your application.
  6. Your application will be reviewed by the scholarship officer.

Precise writing encapsulates many of the 7 C’s; it is clear, concise, concrete, and correct. But it is also accurate and active. To write precisely and apply the 7 C’s, it is important to look critically at your sentences, perhaps in a way you may not have done before. You need to consider the design of those sentences, from the words to the phrases to the clauses, to ensure that you are communicating your message effectively.

Image Descriptions

Figure 2.2.1 Putting all the 7Cs together

A priority list of the 7 Cs.

  1. Clear: Plan ahead! Know your purpose and convey your ideas in a unified manner.
  2. Coherent: Organize your thoughts in a logical, structured progression.
  3. Concise: Budget your words wisely; ensure your writing contains only what’s necessary.
  4. Concrete: Use specific and precise language, use measurable descriptors and avoid vague language.
  5. Correct: Adhere to proper grammar, punctuation, and document structure.
  6. Complete: Give all the important information and answer all relevant questions.
  7. Courteous: Format so that the document is easy to read. Use appropriate and tactful language.

[Return to Figure 2.2.1]

Media Attributions

  • Figure 2.2.1 Putting all the 7Cs together created by Alyssa Zicari and Jenna Hildemann; used with permission.

  1. W. Zinsser, “Simplicity,” [Online]. Available: http://www.geo.umass.edu/faculty/wclement/Writing/zinsser.html
  2. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005). [Film]. Directed by G. Lucas
  3. K. G. Blank, “Wordiness list,” Department of English, University of Victoria [Online]. Available: http://web.uvic.ca/~gkblank/wordiness.html


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Technical Writing Essentials - H5P Edition Copyright © 2022 by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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