The advisability of specificity

Writing is comprised of words that can elicit numberless responses.  Conveying boredom is good, creating it in the reader, not so good.  One thing to strive for is specificity.  In other words, don’t be vague.  Many years ago my job was to conduct surveys, everything from store questionnaires about coffee can labels to door-to-door questions about magazine ads.  What I learned from that job has been invaluable ever since.  I learned to recognize and not settle for vague words.  If the survey subject said something was “nice” I asked them in what way it was nice.  If they said something made them feel good, I asked in what way it made them feel good.

For example “wonderful,” “lovely” and “depression” are vague words.  They convey states of mind, but not in a way that elicits a picture or an emotion.  They’re descriptive, but not evocative.  Whenever I asked someone to be more specific they invariably replied with a phrase or a simile.  “It wasn’t just wonderful, it made me forget where I was and unable to keep the smile off my face.  It made my body thrum and my mind sing.”  “It wasn’t just lovely it made a jewel-toned sunrise over the desert pale by comparison.  Her face was so lovely she made my knees weak and left me tongue-tied.”  “The middle of a newly formed glassy-sided depression the size of a football field made me feel like I was standing in a cereal bowl waiting to drown in Paul Bunyan’s Breakfast of Champions and milk.  This in turn created in me a depression that felt like the lights had been dimmed and I was standing on the lip of a bottomless chasm that was sucking me over the edge.”

Another way to evoke a response is by involving the senses.  So it smelled bad.  Did it make you wrinkle your nose and clap your hand over it? (touch) Was it acrid like burned hair? (smell)  Did it stick to the back of your tongue like rotting swamp grass? (taste)  Did it remind you of the hiss you heard the last time you smelled it? (hearing) Was it so strong you could almost see the fumes hanging in the air like misty tendrils of death? (sight)

I recently read Hush by Cherry Adair.  One of her descriptive phrases (of which she has plenty) made me laugh out loud – in the literal way, not the LOL way:  “Acadia’s gaze skittered away like spit on a griddle.”  That description brought several senses popping into my head.  I loved it!

What are some examples of specificity from your writing or from something you’ve read?

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