Get seriously inspiring writing tips delivered to your inbox Join my author mailing listJoin my author mailing list

Be Specific

If I have a writing mantra, this is it

The secret sauce

Specificity is like a secret sauce when it comes to writing almost anything. I’ll put that another way. Being specific works for any kind of writing. Have you read Clive Myrie’s recent reports? Why are they powerful? Specificity. Have a look at a poem you love. Why do you love it? I bet it’s specificity. Read a page from a couple of books by your favourite novelists. Look particularly at the way they use language. I bet they’re using specificity. Pick up a memoir you love. Hunt for the specificity. Do the opposite too. When you find a piece of writing dull and life-less, I bet it’s because it lacks specificity. Here are some quick tips:

  • The more specific the better at first. You can work out how specific to get when you redraft.
  • Specificity does not equate to long and drawn out.
  • Specificity doesn’t necessarily mean using extra descriptive words either.

What does being specific look like?

Specificity is the difference between putting a character in a generic office and letting us know he works for a paper company, or telling us she’s going to work and showing her pulling pints. It’s the difference between a tree and a 600 year-old oak, or it can be about zooming in on the detail: it’s the difference between a tree and the details on a single leaf. Specificity takes effort. Our primitive brains like to take the easiest route. Adding specificity can feel like solving a puzzle. It takes that sort of brain power. If you read and write a lot, you’ll start adding detail more intuitively, but there will still be times when you need to go in and edit for specificity.

Start with the senses

The senses are a sort of automatic route to specificity. What colour is it? What does it smell like? What can the character hear? What’s the texture like? Any taste associated? What does that place feel like, atmosphere-wise? To put it another way, using one of the senses is a solution to the ‘puzzle’ of specificity. If you’re new to writing, you can turn specificity into a game: put circles around the sentences you want to make more specific, list the senses and set yourself the task of getting really specific about your subject matter.

Henry walked into the office and sat down

For instance, take the sentence ‘Henry walked into the office and sat down’. Sound perfectly fine, right? It could be, depending on the context. But you make it more specific, you could do something like the following examples. As this is a game, you don’t have to use the results but one might jump out at you or surprise you.

  1. Sight: Henry noticed the torn green wallpaper as he walked into the office.
  2. Sound: Henry walked into the office, delighted by the sound of the photocopier, and sat down with his feet up on the desk.
  3. Smell: Coffee, bleach and pistascio ice cream. That’s what Henry thought about as he approached his desk.
  4. Taste: Henry licked the wall of his office, something he had never done before today. Pistascio ice cream flavour.
  5. Touch: Henry ripped the wallpaper from lobby wall, balled it in his fist and slammed it into the wastepaper bin next to his desk.
  6. Atmosphere: Henry gazed at his desk: pen, notebook, stapler, all lined up waiting, and felt like he was living somebody else’s life.

Try out the unusual or unnoticed

Take this game a step further by trying to switch the specific detail for something unusual OR for something mundane that most people don’t usually notice. Obviously you don’t want to use every sense every time you want to get specific, neither do you want to point out unusual or unnoticed detail in every single description. As with all things writing-related, apply with flexibility and edit for balance. To get good at this, go out on location and write in particular places. Look (I mean REALLY LOOK) at the place you’re in as you describe it.

Link the sense with an emotion

See if you can link an emotion to the sense you’ve used too. So does the smell of coffee make the character wistful? How does the sound of drilling make him / her feel? What about the taste of cherry and mascarpone ice cream? Then attempt to make your readers feel the same way, using the coffee, drilling and ice cream, simply by showing it to them.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Louise xx

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.