Master of the craft George Saunders said, ‘As text is revised, it becomes more specific and embodied in the particular. It becomes more sane. It becomes less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading.’ It’s natural when crafting to think big picture, to describe in broad terms and present the first impression of a character’s feeling. When editing, it’s important to get specific – in characterisation, description, action, emotions, and in the story itself. Only then will the narrative feel both real and original.
The most obvious reason specificity is important is that it makes for vibrant prose. John Hodgman said, ‘Specificity is the soul of narrative.’ This is one of those truths that’s only evident to a reader when writing is lacking in specificity, lacking in soul. Imagine the first paragraph of White Teeth by Zadie Smith without specifics:
Morning, late in the century, a main road in London. Early on a January day, the man was dressed in casual clothes and sat in a smoky car face down on the steering wheel, hoping he wouldn’t be too harshly judged. He lay forward in a mess, mouth open, arms out either side; scrunched up in his fists he held two mementos, which he had decided to take with him.
Here it is in all its specific glory:
Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgement would not be too heavy upon him. He lay forward in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage licence (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him.
Precise and uncommon word choices will make your writing more interesting, elevating your manuscript.
It’s also worth noting that specificity usually guarantees clarity. Vague language can send your reader’s imagination in the wrong direction. If you write, ‘Jenny was struck by an overwhelming feeling of intensity,’ the reader could assume she had a good intense feeling or a bad one. If you write, ‘Jenny was invaded with a sense of violence; it tingled through her legs and put a cough in her throat,’ the reader will know exactly what she felt. You’ll see that the more specific sentence is also showing rather than telling.
Specificity isn’t just for nouns! In the example above, I changed the noun and the verb – I also swapped out the adjective for more nouns and verbs (the world has too many adjectives).
Specificity also isn’t just for prose. A more specific (unique, niche, detailed) storyline will increase the sophistication of your novel or short story. If you tell me you’re writing a book about a woman who reconnects with her father, I will forget this. It needs to be a cancer research biologist reconnecting with her father who is dying of lung cancer. Or a middle-aged woman who lives in a squat with people half her age reconnecting with her father and their grand family home.
There’s nothing like a really niche observation – something the reader has always been aware of but never articulated – to pull them into a character’s world. One of my favourite novelists, Joe Dunthorne, is great at this. On page 9 of The Adulterants, the line, ‘We could see Lee in the lounge picking up and putting down beer cans on the coffee table until he found one he liked the weight of,’ is odd yet recognisable and helps the reader to understand the kind of party this is, the stage of the night, and the kind of guy Lee is, whilst injecting some subtle humour into the page.
Specificity is key to humour. Comedian Mindy Kaling said, ‘I think references, where they fit organically, are great. It’s great to do a show that’s real and relatable, and so much of what is real, is using real things and instances that are specific. Specificity is the best tool you can have, as a writer.’ When writing a novel as opposed to a sketch, you want most of your references or more specific observations to convey to an audience in ten or a hundred years time and hopefully across the globe, but you can often make this happen by providing sufficient context around the reference.
Line editing can take huge chunks of time, as you have to consider the length, tone, and meaning of each sentence while looking out for wordiness, bad grammar, clichés and more, but I hope you will feel inspired to incorporate a specificity edit into your process. Let your protagonist’s short hair be a side-swept pixie crop. Let her crisps be prawn crackers.