I will have to admit, there have been many times when I have cut corners with my own writing. I would have a flow of consciousness that I was following in my story, only to hit a speed bump when I got to a certain word that I wanted–but couldn’t think of. And that is when I would cop out and choose another, less specific, word. Bad idea.
In my work with student writers, being too general in their writing is a very common sign of amateurish writing. Steve Martin does a great monologue about how easy writing is when he writes: “There were these guys in this bar when in walks this guy….But this was no ordinary guy. This was a red guy.”
The two problems that usually lead to non-specific writing are these: (1) the idea for the story is not yet clear in the writer’s head; (2) your vocabulary isn’t sufficient, or you aren’t patient enough to find and use the right word. Let’s take a look at each of these.
Being a communication professor, one of the things I do early on is pull out my version of the Shannon and Weaver behaviorist communication model. On one hand, you have a Sender (in our situation, a writer) with a light bulb above their head. They have an idea they have to share. Their goal is to recreate that very same light bulb as faithfully as possible over the head of the other person, labeled the Receiver. To do so, they have to Encode the idea (put it into language), pass it through the channel (the pages of the book) to the other person, our reader. Fighting against them are all sorts of distractions, labeled Noise.
That description is grossly simplistic, but it serves its purpose. The two earlier problems could be isolated as (1) the lightbulb; and (2) the Encoding. If the lightbulb is not clear in our own heads, it’s near impossible to recreate it accurately in the other person’s head. That’s why it’s critical that writers know what they are going to write before they write it. We’ve all sat in front of the blank page and tried to find serendipity, but the vast majority of times, it’s not going to be there. It’s only when you give your subconscious sufficient time to ruminate over an idea that you will be able to recreate it accurately.
The second part–Encoding–is more of a challenge. What do you do when you are looking for exact language, and aren’t finding it? In hindsight, that’s what reading is for. Challenge yourself with writers who use words that are unfamiliar to you, and when you come across one, look it up. Soon you will be confident enough to use them yourself. What I don’t recommend is using 25-cent words just because they are bigger. When you have to choose between a larger and a smaller word, always choose the smaller. On the other hand, when you have to choose between the general and the specific, choose the specific. There’s always the use of a thesaurus; to be honest, I need to use one more often.
Becoming more exact in your writing language doesn’t happen overnight. But it is something we all should wish for. Because the more accurate we can become with our words, the more accurate our storytelling will become.