Owl Editing

Owl Editing

Tips for writers

Steps to Effective Writing (2)

Step 1. Write in Specifics – part 2

The following selection from Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon is full of sharp, clearly defined terms. After explaining that the ship Nan-shan, on her way to Fu-chau, had two hundred Chinese coolies on board, Conrad goes on with:

The foredeck, packed with Chinamen, was full of somber clothing, yellow faces, and pigtails, sprinkled over with a good many naked shoulders, for there was no wind, and the heat was close. The coolies lounged, talked, smoked, or stared over the rail; some, drawing water over the side, sluiced each other; a few slept on hatches, while several small parties of six sat on their heels surrounding iron trays with plates of rice and tiny tea-cups; and every single Celestial of them was carrying with him all he had in the world — a wooden chest with a ringing lock and brass on the corners, containing the savings of his labors; some clothes of ceremony, sticks of incense, a little opium, maybe, bits of nameless rubbish of conventional value, and a small hoard of silver dollars, toiled for in coal mines, won in gambling houses or in petty trading, grubbed out of the earth, sweated out in mines, on railway lines, in deadly jungles, under heavy burdens — amassed patiently, guarded with care, cherished fiercely. (From Typhoon by Joseph Conrad, 1902)

Conrad does not give us all the details; that task would be impossible. He does, however, give us in specific, definite, concrete terms all the significant details. His vivid words place us on the bridge of the Nan-shan, overlooking the foredeck. From that point, we can see for ourselves what was on the deck during the eventful voyage.

Long ago, somebody said that elaboration of the obvious is pointless. Nevertheless, in looking at some of the specifics in Conrad’s paragraph, this writer intends to risk such elaboration. The coolies did not merely occupy the foredeck; they lounged, smoked, or did other specific things. They did not gather in groups; they gathered in small parties of six. They did not merely sit; they sat on their heels. They did not sit around trays of food; they sat around iron trays with plates of rice and tiny tea-cups. And so on, and so on.

This sort of writing is basic to the effective use of language, because effectiveness of language is proportional in large degree to the number of specifics used. Of course, this kind of writing has its roots in thinking in specifics, and most of us do not want to think in specific, definite terms. We dislike intensely being pinned down to a concrete statement. We believe that when we have said a man is tall we have said all there is to say about his height. But how tall is he? Must he duck his head to pass through the ordinary doorway? Is he a foot taller than any other man in the room?



from: 12 Steps to Effective Writing

Berton Robinson (1963)