Writer’s Toolkit: Words and Specificity

This series of blog posts is intended to provide writers with some ways of thinking about the tools of our trade. It’s not meant to be prescriptive; there are no hard or fast rules about what makes “good writing” here. The longer I live, the more certain I am that there is no such thing as “good writing,” anyway — there’s only writing that does what it sets out to do. So here are some ways to think about how you can accomplish what you’re setting out to do.

Our first, most basic tool will always be words. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a thrill to learning new words that’s rivaled only by finding cool rocks or picking flowers. When I see “susurrus” or “inchoate” or “lumpen” on the page, I just want to reach into the story and put it in my pocket.

For me, deciding which words to use is a matter of specificity, esotericism, etymology, and sonics. These are all important things to consider, so I’ll be making a separate post for each.

Specificity

When I talk about the specificity of a word, I’m really talking about how much detail is already captured in the word choice. A general word gestures to a broad category of things, their differences and particularities blurred; a specific word emphasizes those particularities.

GeneralSpecific
TreeAspen, Maple, Baobab
YellowGolden, Citrine, Lemony
PeopleWelders, Cowards, Refugees
DarkMurky, Starless, Unlit

Specificity is the camera focus of word choice. When you choose a specific word, you paint a clearer and sharper picture of that thing, which can be used to place emphasis within a passage of text. Compare:

They danced beneath the quaking aspens, sunlight shining amber-golden through the yellow leaves.

Versus

The merrymakers danced under the sunlit trees, Miss Topha decked in emerald ribbons and Old Ned waving his hickory cane and sticky children everywhere underfoot.

The beginning of each sentence uses specificity to set up what the end of each sentence delivers. In the first sentence, who “they” is doesn’t particularly matter; the author is focusing on the autumnal environment. This can work well to “pull the camera back” from the characters, which can help transition out of a character-focused scene. In the second sentence, though, the trees are almost irrelevant except in passing, as a setting — the author is drawing the reader’s attention to who is dancing, and why they are dancing, and how they are interacting with each other.

As the examples above show, specificity isn’t just a matter of combing the thesaurus for the right synonym. The more details you add, the more senses you engage, the more “focus” you will place on an object, character, or idea.

This can be why some people get turned off by “purple prose” or ruminating epic fantasy — it can be hard sometimes to know what to focus on, when everything is lavishly detailed. Sometimes, you can use this reaction to your advantage, such as when you want your reader to feel overwhelmed and grasping for anchor points. In those cases, the contrast of following overwhelming detail with something stated clearly and simply can act almost like negative space in visual art:

All around her were embroidered silken fans, veils dripping with beads of emerald and garnet, damask gowns in viridian and claret and ebony. The room stank of perfumes: attar of rose and woodruff and ambergris and clove, orange peel mingling with fierce civet musk until the whole room reeked like a weasel orgy in a spice market. Sweat gathered under her mask and dripped in rivulets to her bare clavicles. Elise fanned ferociously at her neck, but still her pulse pounded as though someone was beating a tarantella on a taut skin drum.

Then Isabella called out “Elise!” from across the crowded room, and all at once Elise’s anxieties melted away.

In the passage above, Elise is experiencing sensory overload and alienation (notice that what she pays attention to are not the people in the room, but what they are wearing and what they smell like). She feels hot and anxious and out of place, and the parade of details serves to create the same effect of overwhelm for the reader. But when Isabella calls for her, suddenly there is another human being in the room with her, and the simplicity of her shout is enough to break through both the prose and Elise’s anxiety.

If you’re struggling with a passage of your writing, try varying the specificity — maybe you’re getting hung up on detailing something that isn’t actually all that important, or maybe you’d benefit from shifting the focus. Just changing a sentence’s detail level to emphasize a different character, object, or setting can be really helpful in providing you with a jumping-off point for the next sentence.

Happy writing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s