Owl Editing

Owl Editing

Tips for writers

Steps to Effective Writing (3)

Step 1. Write in Specifics – part 3

The view from the hill behind our town — is it beautiful? If a writer uses that overworked, vague term, he must at once tell specific things that support his use of the general adjective. A writer must never use a general term unless he follows it at once with specifics to enforce agreement from the reader.

Conrad follows that rule carefully. He says each coolie was carrying with him “all he had in the world”. Then he goes on at once to be specific about the things each coolie had — the wooden chest, and its contents.

In the following passage, from Shadows on the Rock, by Willa Cather, notice Miss Cather’s swift transition from the general to the specific.

Saint-Vallier was a man of contradictions, and they were stamped upon his face. One saw there something slightly hysterical, and something uncertain, — though his manner was imperious, and his administration had been arrogant and despotic. Auclair had once remarked to the Count that the new Bishop looked less like a churchman than like a courtier. “Or an actor,” the Count replied with a shrug. Large almond-shaped eyes under low-growing brown hair and delicate eyebrows, a long, sharp nose — and then the lower part of his face diminished, like the neck of a pear. His mouth was large and well shaped, but seldom in repose; his chin narrow, receding, with a dimple at the end. He had a dark skin and flashing white teeth like an Italian, — indeed, his face recalled the portraits of eccentric Florentine nobles. He was still only forty-four; he had been Bishop of Quebec now twelve years, — and seven of them had been spent in France! (from Shadows on the Rock by Willla Cather, 1931)

The unerring selection and vivid presentation of specific detail in these passages from Conrad and Miss Cather are the goals toward which everyone who wants to write effectively must work.

Lack of specific, definite terms in writing is in general due to four causes — laziness, carelessness, ignorance, and failure to see the general, abstract terms in our own work. As this book is not directed toward the lazy or the careless writer, we will dismiss him at once from this discussion. Failure to see the general and the abstract terms in our own writing can be corrected only by word-by-word reading for revision and by incessant asking, “Does this word convey a clear, sharp meaning?” If not, either seek out a new word, or follow the term with specifics to enforce the meaning. Ignorance is best overcome by careful, observant reading of the work of good writers.

No more remains to be said. Let him who would write effective English read the work of good writers, and in his own work sternly and uncompromisingly replace with definite, concrete specifics, the glittering generalities that sound as though they mean something, but are actually as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.


Summary of Step 1

  • learn to think, speak, and write in specific, concrete terms
  • observe the use of specifics by good writers


from: 12 Steps to Effective Writing

Berton Robinson (1963)