Effective Writing is Specific, not General

It’s easy to use general terms when writing. For example, we can write “The car raced down the road,” and we’d be following the “Show, Don’t Tell” advice of good writing. The active verb helps create the image for the reader.

But the sentence “The car raced down the road,” is still too general. We can make the image even more clear with more specific writing. Follow the progression below.

  • The car raced down the road.
  • The car raced down the dirt road.
  • The black car raced down the dirt road.
  • The black car with the crumbled fender raced down the dirt road.

You get to decide how specific you want to be. My point is the more specific you are, the more effective your writing becomes.

Look at the progression and you’ll also note each sentence adds more words. Be careful about how much detail you add lest you become too wordy, something you don’t want to do. The art part of writing entails determining how specific you should be without losing your reader in a sea of unnecessary detail.

Just as a woodcarver starts with a chunk of wood, then begins removing pieces until the desired shape forms, so should you whittle away at your writing. Think  of all the details you could offer the reader, then remove any that get in the way of clearly showing the reader the image or concept you want the reader to see.

Notice how your favorite authors use specific writing in their work. As a reader, you probably connect better with writers who specifically show you what they see so you can see it too. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. Be specific and you’ll get your message across more effectively than if you write in general terms.

Happy writing!


21 Responses to “Effective Writing is Specific, not General”

  1. 1 penstrokes2 June 29, 2010 at 9:27 am

    Thank you for this note. It is very helpful.

  2. 3 Christoph Raetzsch March 25, 2011 at 5:11 am

    I found your article encouraging as I was looking for notes on the dynamic between specific and general writing styles. But would like to add that writing for blogs seems to be in favor of a more general writing style. If the writing is easily approachable (recipes, travel accounts, “look, my dog can jump over a fence”-prose) more people seem to be compelled to engage with the author (comment) on the basis of a very general understanding of the gist of a post. When an article is designed to be specific and reflects that through diction, in-references, jargon, readers seem to regard that as an “article” that they can read or consume without offering feedback to the author (unless they are experts in that field). The tension seems to be between interaction (two-way) when written in general style and old-fashioned publishing (one-way) with deferred feedback in specific styles.

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