Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Power of Specificity

Let's face it: writing is an exceptionally time-consuming process, and we are in a world of little available time. There are countless methods of revision we can employ in our writing - and we should use a variety of techniques. But there is one technique I have found that gives me the most improvement with the least time (but not necessarily effort).

This technique is actually contradictory to what most novice writers believe. Most writers believe that the more adjectives and adverbs you add to your writing, the more sophisticated it becomes. Actually, the opposite is true.

The most effective technique is to focus on choosing strong, specific nouns and verbs.

That's it. That's all you've got to do for stellar writing. (Ha, if only it were really that easy.)

Let's look at some examples:

John went to the store.

Boring. There's no intrigue or emotional involvement. There's no interest in the sentence. So how can we fix it? Let's look at our verb first (I often find this the easiest place to start): went. What could we replace it with? Walked, certainly. John walked to the store. There's an improvement there, but walked is still a bit weak. How did he walk there? Remember, we want to avoid adverbs, so we don't want to say anything like walked slowly or walked quickly. So what other synonyms could we use?

How about strolled, raced, or trudged?  Compare these three revised sentences:

  • John strolled to the store.
  • John raced to the store.
  • John trudged to the store.

All much better versions of the original sentence because we've already learned so much more about the character by changing only one sentence.

  • The first one indicates that John is having a nice, relaxing time. There isn't anything rushing him, and he's enjoying his walk. 
  • The second one indicates he is in a hurry for some reason. Perhaps he's trying to beat someone. Or he's really excited. Or he's concerned an item won't be available any longer if he waits too long. Countless options, but all of them better than went.
  • The third one indicates that he is dreading going to the store. Again, we have multiple options. Maybe he hates shopping, or just this particular store.  Maybe he's afraid of something when he gets there. It doesn't really matter, and the rest of the paragraph or story can answer these possibilities. But what does matter is that now we care about John's experience, whereas when he just went to the store, we didn't.

Now let's look at our nouns. John is pretty specific. We probably don't need to do much there. But what about store? Wouldn't we learn so much more if the store were more specific as well? Look at the above examples and replace them with different kinds of stores:

  • John trudged (strolled/raced) to Walmart.
  • John trudged to Meier & Frank.
  • John trudged to the pet store.
  • John trudged to Walgreen's.
  • John trudged to the second-hand store.

Just by being more specific with the kind of store John is going to, we again add so much more to our character and story. The reader becomes an involved, caring member of your story.

All just from choosing specific nouns and verbs. Simple, right? Well...it gets simpler the more you practice. But it is definitely a quick technique to elevate your writing to the next level.

*Note on verbs* Keep an eye out for these particularly common, weak verbs: to be (be, been, being, am, is, are, was, were); would, could, should; walk; went, go; look.