What It Takes

What It Takes

Specificity

By Shawn Coyne | Published: May 31, 2013

If I were only allowed to give one piece of advice about line-by-line writing (constructing sentences one after the other), it would be this:  Be specific.

To write well is to be clear, to choose language that best suits your message. To accomplish both of these tasks (clarity of word choice to beget laser focus on a central idea) requires specificity. It just does.

Obviously if you have no keen understanding of what it is you want to convey to a reader before you begin writing, you’ll have difficulty being specific. In fact you’ll have difficulty writing anything.

If I were to suddenly change the direction of the core idea of this essay to the physical size of paragraphs and how to make them the most aesthetically pleasing so that each designed page of your completed work takes on its own Rorschach like image system, you’d probably have to go back and re-read what I’d written in the previous paragraph to see where you, as the reader, lost your train of thought.  If you did go back, you’d discover that I was writing about how important it was to be specific and then without any transition switched to writing about how to make the physical layout of your paragraphs visually interesting.  Not only have I completely changed the tack of my argument for specificity, I’ve suggested something ridiculous.

Worse still, I’ve confused you.

Unfortunately, we, as readers, will intuitively blame ourselves for losing our train of thought. Especially when we read published prose in some fancy newspaper, magazine or book. This “I’m so stupid” feeling is much the same as the one we all had as children when we first learned to read. It’s difficult to turn off the “now what is this writer trying to tell me?” part of our brain.

As children, that voice reigns, especially when we begin reading something new. (This is why kids like to read things over and over again).  But as we grow older and read more and more (like learning how to hit a tennis ball or how to lay bricks) the nervous critical voice inside takes a rest and we allow ourselves to follow the rhythm of the writer’s language instead of trying to parse his larger meaning word by word.

We trust the writer knows what he’s doing and will leave us with the point of his story without our having to strain ourselves figuring it out.

If you write generically, your reader will have difficulty turning off that internal critical voice in their minds. Eventually they’ll find your sentence structure and paragraph construction too difficult to follow and will stop reading.

I submit that this bailing out is the fault of the writer, not the reader.  Where the writer went off the rails was…I’m hoping I’ve been clear enough building my argument that you’ve already come to this conclusion…their specificity of word choice and idea.

There are two kinds of specificity.

1. Specificity of words and 2. Specificity of ideas.

Recommending that you be specific with your language is advice that can never be offered enough.  I’m sure you’ve heard it before. It’s like telling someone he should floss his teeth, balance his checkbook, and have the air pressure in his car tires checked once a month.

He’ll say “Oh yes, of course!  Perfect advice! I’m going to tape that truth right above my laptop!” and then he’ll write a sentence like:

She loved her dog.

Instead of something like this:

The relationship Hilary found most fulfilling, as it required absolutely zero emotional investment on her part and yet returned complete adoration, was the one with her constant companion Maidstone, the prissy miniature greyhound she’d bought on Via Condotti.

Do you think readers will have a better understanding of who “she” is in the first sentence as a human being (her social class, her attitudes about life, her ability to engage in authentic relationships…) or “Hillary” in the second sentence?

Come on, haven’t I written sentences like “She loved her dog?”

Of course I have.  I do it all the time, especially in first drafts. And sometimes they even slip by my keen editorial eye and remain in final drafts of my work. Writing a less than perfect sentence is unavoidable. They are like typos. You fight like Hell to get rid of them, but don’t beat yourself up too much when some escape your grasp.

Not pouring over your sentences to make sure that you’ve progressively built a compelling argument is the work of an amateur.  Writing Pros go over every single word, as many times as possible, right up to deadline.

I can’t tell you how many times Steve does this.  I get emails from him all the time with things like “change the word ‘battle’ in paragraph nine on page 46 to ‘siege.’”

He drives me crazy with his specificity.  But then I actually turn to page 46 and make the change and I know why he does it. It’s a better word, truer to the core idea he’s set out to communicate.

The reason why we write generic sentences that do nothing for the point of our stories is that writing with specificity requires the patience of a diamond cutter.

When it doubt, pull out the magnifying monocle…

Posted in What It Takes

12 Responses to “Specificity”

  1. Basilis
    May 31, 2013 at 4:49 am

    Loved the examples of the post!

  2. May 31, 2013 at 7:38 am

    Absolutely great advice. I would argue, however, that sometimes leaving out the specifics can draw the reader in, making them long for more.

    Perhaps a stronger example would be to describe aspects of what it is you’re writing with detailed specifics, but then lead the reader on with the occasional, ambiguous reference (only to be clarified later on). Maybe?

  3. Shawn Coyne
    May 31, 2013 at 7:51 am

    Hey Tanner,

    Absolutely correct. There is a time and a place for everything and there are all kinds of reasons to leave something ambiguous, especially in fiction. To create mystery or suspense is certainly one of them.

    The advice I always give is to go full bore specific in first, second, third, fourth and fifth drafts when you are working big structural problems…and then take away the superfluous scaffolding during your multiple polish drafts thereafter.

    The tighter and clearer you are during construction, the easier it is to pull out those extra two by fours propping up already established footings later on. Ruthlessly getting rid of excessive building materials is crucial to generate a compelling narrative drive but I maintain that you must go full bore and overdo your specificity in the first through fifth drafts before you can confidently clean up the work site later on.
    Yours
    Shawn

  4. Sonja
    May 31, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    This is great advice since so many books/writing coaches tell you to go BIG. As in a big, general outline, then list your five main ideas. They then advise to get to the nitty-gritty towards the end of a project, not in the beginning.

    I appreciate this approach. Thank you Shawn.

  5. Janis
    May 31, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Weirdly, this sort of transparency in writing is (more than) occasionally punished. A lot of times, when one’s writing is transparent enough to make even the toughest ideas go down like water, the conclusion drawn about the ideas is that they are so obvious even a moron could grasp them, and hence that the writer is an idiot for trying to make something big out of the idiotically obvious. (The sciences are awful like this. Pay too much attention trying to craft a well-written paper, and it will be bounced from publication for being self-evident.)

    It’s a shame, but we as a culture often punish those who are good communicators, and stand in awe of the poor ones. “Wow,” we say to ourselves, “that guy must be a genius! I didn’t understand a thing he said!” o_O

    • Shawn Coyne
      May 31, 2013 at 12:49 pm

      Janis,
      Your two paragraphs summed up the subtext of my entire post! Needless to say, I couldn’t agree more. Give me Michael Lewis over BIG NAME LITERARY GUY I DON’T WANT TO INSULT any day.
      Thanks
      Shawn

  6. Nazar Kozak
    May 31, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Cool post especially the part with “sudden change”

  7. June 1, 2013 at 8:32 am

    I follow this blog pretty regularly because of posts like this. If I can get one tip, no matter how small, then it’s worth taking the time to read; and let me just say, “specificity” is a new one for me.

    Thanks for posting this!

  8. June 4, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Shawn,

    This reminds me of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” It should probably be read together with that essay. I teach “this” and try to practice it in my own writing.

    thanks.

  9. Nathan
    June 5, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    poring over*

    Sorry, I had to. 😀
    Thanks for this article. I have been editing a lot of work lately(primarily novels for kindle) and this is something that comes up often.

    Also, The War of Wart is awesome!

  10. June 7, 2013 at 9:05 am

    Your post reminds me of a saying I learned as a preaching pastor:

    “A mist in the pulpit, means a fog in the pews.”

    You are right, people blame themselves for not “getting it.”

    Thanks for sharing the wisdom and stirring the pot.

    Keep creating…relevant surprise,
    Mike

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