For Amazing Writing, Get Amazingly Specific

When I tell my students we’re going to have a lesson about being specific, I sometimes get some eyerolls. We get it, they tell me. Vagueness is bad in creative writing. Vagueness is the enemy.

But this lesson really can’t be stated enough. For various reasons, some of which include laziness, it’s terribly tempting to be vague when we’re writing a scene of description or action. We’re in a hurry to get to the good bit, maybe, so we rush through the scene-setting. Or we’re in the middle of the good bit, so we focus on the action and the intensity, but not on placing our readers in a vividly realized world.

Think about the following sentence: Jealous of her older sister’s toy, Sarah threw something at her.

All right, we’ve got some strong action here, and some good emotional conflict. We’ve got a healthy dose of sibling rivalry and the beginning of some good characters. But where are we? How old are these characters? What toy? What did Sarah throw? There are so many missed opportunities here; we could paint a vivid picture, but right now all we have is the vaguest outline.

So let’s improve on what we’ve got. Jealous of her older sister’s Malibu Barbie with matching polka-dot stiletto-bikini combo, Sarah threw a Lego piece at her.

That’s not to say we always have to use brand names, but it’s one way to get more specific. Suddenly, for many readers familiar with Barbies, the doll has sprung to life in the sister’s hand. There she is, fully realized, able to be pictured. And now we can see that tiny little Lego brick hurtling toward the sister’s head. That’s so much more vivid than “toy” and “something.”

How about another example?

When we were kids, we used to make horrible concoctions and try to feed them to our little sister.

Here I’m paraphrasing a wonderful short story by Rick Moody called “Boys”. But I’ve stripped all the wonderful specificity out of Moody’s phrasing. In his story, we get a fantastic list of the items in that horrible concoction. We get “vanilla pudding” and “drain-opening lye.” We get “blue food coloring” and “ants.” It’s an epic assembly of items parading by our mind’s eye as they go into the pot.

Being specific in this way is fundamentally a way to bust clichés. Cliches by their nature are vague: they are smooth, universally acceptable generalizations about things. That’s why they feel so stale; you try applying a phrase like “let sleeping dogs lie” to a thousand different situations and worlds. But if you get specific to your character’s world, his problems, his situation, and his life, then you’ll make us experience it right along with him.

That’s how you bust a cliché. And that’s why being specific is the difference between writing that’s meh and writing that’s amazing.