But What Do You Really Mean?

The one piece of advice that I most frequently give to my students is “be specific”. I say and write it so often that they’re probably tired of hearing it. However, I do believe that you must be as specific as possible if you ever hope to communicate anything effectively.

When we speak or write about Big Concepts like love, happiness, anger, sadness, or passion, we often rely on “big concept” words or phrases, which we use to generalize those feelings or states of mind.

Think of words and phrases like “angry”, “so in love”, “depressed”, or “in pain”. What do these “big concept” words and phrases even mean? Each person has a very unique take on the world, and you, as a writer, have a chance to communicate that perspective. Don’t assume that your reader knows what you mean!

Why do you think hospitals use a pain chart to gauge their patients’ pain? From a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is the pain? Where does it hurt? Be specific.

How can you avoid “big concept” words and phrases? Rather than trying to name the emotion, use images to communicate the emotion. Give your reader some credit – if you can paint a sensory picture with words, the reader should be able to feel exactly what you mean. The images should move them to the emotion you want to convey.

Here’s an example of a sentence that could use some specificity: Ever since my boyfriend and I fell in love, I’ve been really happy – I’ve never experienced such a passionate relationship before!

On first glance, this sentence seems descriptive. I even included adjectives!

Let’s rewrite it with more specificity: After about four months, John asked me if I had any interest in dating him exclusively. My smile stretched so far across my face that I thought my cheeks were going to rip. I hugged him and realized that his body was warmer and more comfortable than my baby blanket, which I refused to throw away, even after all these years. He kissed me so suddenly that I lost my balance and fell into a pile of snow.

As you can see, I added a few sentences, in order to provide some more detail. But I didn’t use any big concept words (you could argue that “dating” is a big concept word, but I didn’t want to write too much).

Which example do you like better? Personally, I think the second example reveals more information that is very specific to these characters – not only do we learn that the narrator is “in love” but we also learn about her baby blanket. Do you see all the opportunities you’re missing when you rely on “big concept” words and phrases to communicate your intentions?

(Photo by Bob Doran)

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