20 Ways to Make It Better — Way #7

Be specific. Write in concrete, not in clouds.

Last post we talked about going deeper and suggested one way to go deeper is to be specific. When you write, write the names of things. Rather than bird, write sparrow or starling; instead of tree, write eucalyptus or willow. Give colors their shades: tomato, brick, blood, and sounds their tones: high-pitched, squeal, honk. It’s not just a house, it’s a Spanish bungalow. We’re not eating cupcakes, we’re eating Ho Ho’s.

Hemingway said, “There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.” The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Chinook off the Pacific. Billy’s Lunch Counter. Giving places their names honors them and brings a sense of verisimilitude to your writing. You become an authority.

Another way to be specific is to use the concrete, not the abstract. The abstract—dinner was delicious—leaves the reader to guess what delicious is. She has to take a break from your story to go into her own mental files to find “delicious,” which bumps her out of your story for just that long. Then what she comes up with might not be what you meant at all. The concrete—we had seared albacore with a hot Chinese dipping sauce—tells what delicious is, at least for you or the character you’re writing about. Specificity helps the reader use their imagination. How much more colorful and rich to imagine a plate with the dark lines of the grill seared across the white skin of the albacore, beside it, the small dish of Chinese dipping sauce.

Abstract words always ask for judgment—delightful, thrilling, disgusting, ugly, lovely, tremendous, and so forth–all need the reader’s interpretation. (And is anyone besides me over the word amazing?) Concrete words say what is.

Note: Make sure the specific details you choose are true and right for the piece. Take care not to bloom your azaleas in the fall or pop up your toast before Herbert Hoover was elected.

Specificity is generosity, someone said. Be a generous writer.

Homework assignment: Write 17 shades of blue, give me nine kinds of cake. Describe something “beautiful.”

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