The comment I make most often to my writing students has nothing to do with grammar or punctuation. It has nothing to do with sentence structure or the number of sentences in a paragraph. The comment consists of only two words, which I’ll usually write on the board at the beginning of class to serve as a reminder. Can you guess what the two words are?
Be specific. Good writing is specific on many levels: through its diction, imagery, and syntax. I believe that 100% of non-professional writers could stand to be more specific. Specificity captures the reader’s attention and doesn’t allow that attention to wander. It personalizes the writing and makes it unique to the writer. It also helps the writer convey his or her arguments in a stronger manner and in a way that’s less likely to be challenged.
Now that you’re convinced of the benefits of specificity, you probably want to know how you can make your writing more specific. Below are five ways that you can take your writing from general to precise.
1. Conduct a verb inventory. The biggest misconception student writers have about specificity is that they should use as many adjectives and adverbs as possible. However, the overuse of adjectives and adverbs can weaken the specificity by distracting the reader with unnecessary words. Instead of cluttering your writing, make better use of the words you already have. Conducting a verb inventory means underlining your verbs and asking yourself if you could exchange them with stronger verbs. For example, instead of “walk,” could you use “stroll” or “creep”? Pay special attention to forms of “to be” verbs; not only can you usually replace “to be” verbs with stronger, more appropriate verbs, but the “to be” verbs may also be a sign that your writing is passive.
2. Reconsider five-dollar words. Sometimes, a five-dollar word (multi-syllabic word that’s often difficult to pronounce) can help you make your writing more specific; in some cases, using a “big” word is the only way for you to convey your meaning. In most cases, however, five-dollar words can obscure your meaning, especially if you’re using many five-dollar words in a row. Don’t avoid five-dollar words completely, but remember that any carefully chosen word, no matter how impressive it sounds, can convey a specific idea.
3. Support with examples grounded in reality. If you find yourself using words like “most,” “some,” “all,” “people,” or “everyone,” you’re probably not being specific enough. Try replacing the first three words with a specific number, and the last two words with a more specific group of people, like “children,” “college students,” or “Americans.” History and personal experience are your Bank of Specificity. Draw from what you know and speak to specific instances. Use generalities and risk stereotyping or constructing a weak argument.
4. Consider proper nouns. To expand on the previous tip, consider using proper nouns when appropriate. Because proper nouns, by their nature, refer to a specific person or group of people, using a proper noun is an easy way to ensure that you’re being specific.
5. Revise, revise, revise. Specificity never happens on a rough draft. Twenty revisions later, I’m still finding ways to make my own short stories more specific. Revising for specificity means asking yourself if you’re getting the most value for your words. I like to compare it to analyzing your monthly expenses. Do you still need that ridiculous cable bill, or could you downgrade your plan to save money? Strive for efficiency.
(Photo by juggernautco)