She entered a room. He ate his breakfast. They talked about life.
If you write like this, you’re missing out on an important opportunity. Namely, the chance to be specific! What does the room look like? What's for breakfast? "Life" is a pretty big topic, so what specifically did they discuss? These sentences are far too vague.
In this article, we’re going to explore specificity in writing. Why is it important, and how can it improve your work? Let’s find out.
The Importance of Specificity
Delia drove down the highway in her old car and ignored the speed limit. It was morning. The vista in the distance was beautiful enough, but she couldn't admire it for long. She had places to be.
This is a decent start to a book. However, as you can see, it’s a little light on the details. My feeling is, whenever we write a general detail, we can strengthen our writing by making it more specific.
Let’s take this passage line by line.
Original: Delia drove down the highway in her old car and ignored the speed limit.
Right now, I’m picturing a generic highway with a non-specific car going somewhere over 65 miles per hour (we’re not even sure if this is in the States or not!). All of these details can be improved, therefore providing a more vivid reading experience. How about this?
Rewrite: Delia raced down the two-lane Colorado highway in her red '68 Corvette, her speedometer climbing near triple digits.
With the details filled in, we now know where we are, what Delia’s car looks like, and approximately how fast she’s going. We’ve taken our initial outline for the scene and crystalized it in the reader’s imagination. Details help paint a picture in readers’ minds, which is certainly a goal worth striving for.
How about the second sentence in the passage?
Original: The vista in the distance was beautiful enough, but she couldn't admire it for long.
“The vista in the distance” is far too vague. Let’s replace it with a distinct visual.
Rewrite: The mountain peaks loomed on the horizon, but she couldn't admire the view for long.
Now we know exactly what she’s seeing, rather than needing to guess.
However, the last sentence of the passage is interesting.
She had places to be.
That statement is certainly lacking detail. But is that actually acceptable, or even correct?
Being Responsible with Specificity
It’s just like Uncle Ben said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” There are certainly some situations where you should be vague.
Let’s start with She had places to be. I think this vagueness works quite well for the beginning of a book. At this stage, we’re trying to get our readers engrossed in our story. That means a little non-specificity is acceptable, and even beneficial. We want to leave some things unsaid so that readers have a reason to keep reading.
If we commit too soon to all-time specificity, we might write She was returning home to settle a score from her past. But I think giving away such a key detail so early on in the book might make it less compelling. It also runs the risk of telling, rather than showing. Instead, ease the reader in. Let them learn more about Delia, and allow them to wonder who she is, where she’s going, and why she’s going there.
So How Do You Know When to Be Specific and When to Be Vague?
Like any writing advice, correct application is key. The best writers know when to employ a trick and when not to. I know it’s not particularly useful advice to say that you can hone your instincts through time and practice—but it’s true!
In particular, though, I recommend being specific with characterization and visual description. Don’t just write that a character is intimidating; describe his many scars, his unblinking stare, and his humorless tone. Don’t just write that a room is vast; describe the vaulted ceiling, the echo of characters’ voices within the space, and the sight of distant columns as they vanish from sight.
The Key to Specificity? Revision!
I think of writing like painting. We begin with sketches and outlines of our vision. Then we fill them in with color and vibrancy, adding layer after layer until the image looks as lifelike as possible. Likewise, writers begin with generalities, then shape them into concrete, specific prose. By the end, we have excellent work.
So don’t worry if your first draft is light on detail. You might not know your main character quite yet, or your setting, or your plot. But as you write and revise, try to take your general statements and make them as specific as possible. Apply that specificity appropriately, yes, but make sure to apply it more often than not. Your writing will benefit from doing so.