‘God save us from vague generalizations.’ So said Anton Chekhov.
Great writers like him know the importance of using words that exactly convey their message. I hadn’t seen the word ‘specificity’ outside of bio-chemistry until I read Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, the best bible for real writers - bar none. Particularity is another key element in Stein’s book, but that will wait for another post.
Specificity paints clearer pictures than generalisations. ‘The sunrise was stunning,’ doesn’t tell us much. ‘The red-orange rays of the rising sun painted the calm bay liquid gold,’ tells us a lot more. Same with: ‘The old man was a disheveled mess.’ Much more specific is: ‘The old man’s clothes hung from his stooped frame like rags from a scarecrow.’
Detail adds authenticity to your writing because it makes the reader feel that she’s a witness. Common speech, as we hear it and practice is every day, tends to be lazy. It’s full of clichés and generic words; the bare minimum for holding simple conversations. Here at Technoledge, when we write for IT clients, we have to get really specific. One reason is that many IT vendors make very similar claims for their products. To differentiate our clients’ products from theirs, our writing has to have great precision.
The damage is truly AMAZING
Frequently, a word will come along that you suddenly hear in every conversation. The current word-killer is AMAZING. It's not just used in lazy conversation but has worked its way into the heads of well-spoken people like a worm into an apple. Now we have radio and TV presenters using that word all the time. We hear of amazing feats of Olympic athletes, of amazing people, of amazing meals at restaurants, of amazing films and of amazing deals. Take a guess at the title on the image above? Yep - the AMAZING Rock House.
This fashion word has swept away a whole lot of more interesting words. Here are just a few: astounding, breathtaking, enthralling, entrancing, exceptional, fascinating, marvellous, remarkable, spellbinding, sublime, superb, surprising, terrific, wonderful.
Getting right down to specifics
These are just the generic words that have been swept into the gutter. AMAZING has also terminated a long list of far more specific and descriptive worlds. We ran a public speaking course recently, and asked the group to use more specific words than AMAZING.
They described a meal as scrumptious and delicious, and the body of an Olympic athlete as chiseled, a film they’d seen as uplifting, a thriller they’d read as heart-stopping, a gesture from a colleague as kind, a performance they’d witnessed as awe-inspiring, and a speech they’d heard as thought-provoking.
Generalities are generally bad
Specific detail is the lifeblood of good writing. Abstract and generic words don’t engage the reader. Specific words do because they draw a clear picture. Specific words engage the five senses: see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Specific words describe real places, mountains, cities, products or technologies. The saying goes that a picture beats a thousand words, so imagery is a great way to be highly specific.
The great wordsmith Mark Twain once said, ‘The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.’
Back to Business
We’ve talked about how people these days don’t read any more but just skim over the headlines on your web page. Here’s one way to slow them down: Put highly specific detail into your headlines. This is why you see headings like
- How I made $12,431 last month working from home
- Lose 11.5 kilos in just 4 Weeks
- How to Shave 6 Strokes Off Your Golf Score in 7 Days
It comes back to the key point here: accurate detail adds authenticity. People are more inclined to believe claims like these than ‘You can make a million in a year with my proven get rich technique.’ It takes a little more work, but the results will reward you for it.
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