In query letters and synopses, outlines and sample pitches, a virus spreads. Abstract, generalized words and phrases that tell readers almost nothing.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss a few ways to get specifics into your writing.
Man v. A Man
E.B. White famously said, “Don’t write about man. Write about a man. Great advice. Yet often—especially in condensed queries, synopses, blurbs and pitches, we sacrifice the particular for the general. Abstract language weakens these things due to readers not being able to access a writer’s intent.
I once asked a class of writing students to write a short paragraph about love. The results were wonderful and varied when the writer concentrated on a specific event. While many new writers think using formal language makes them sound educated, in reality the opposite is usually true. Your task as a writer must be to help readers imagine specific details about an interpretation of an abstract concept.
Think of any blanket word, such as love, hate, joy or sadness. What kind of image springs up in your mind? Cliches (like a heart for love) don’t excite or engage readers as much as describing a specific event (read: scene) anchored in time and space. Aim to keep readers interested by writing about your unique take on life and its meanings.
If your summary says, “My protagonist must save the world,” readers understand in a general way. The real question is how your protagonist accomplishes this goal, why they are passionate about the goal, and what/whom they’ll need to overcome to attain it. Many stories have the same “save the world” theme, yet readers are keen to know how your work is different and exciting. Be as specific as possible in these short descriptions of the story.
In each scene, carry this particularity forward. Don’t write that your character is angry. Give us the why and how of this anger. Readers will deduce anger if you give them specific clues. A major reason to write scenes that are particular is that by writing specifics, the “camera” zooms in. The more general and abstract words you use, the more the camera zooms out, leaving readers frustrated.
Zooming in on queries, blurbs and synopses may result in overlong efforts. What to leave in and what to omit? Shorten by concentrating on particular active verbs and to-the-point descriptions. I recommend using a little formula from Nate Bransford that puts the scene or novel into a sparse description: Character is (three descriptors) living in (setting). But when (complication) happens, she must do (action or quest) to overcome (obstacles/villain) to attain (goal). This technique zooms us in on key events.
The more particular your writing, the greater chance of attracting a readership.
As you learn to write specifically, cultivate your interest in the world around you. Be a perpetual noticer. You can carry around a notepad or dictate into your phone, saving cool observations. Listen for dialogue in restaurants. Let imagery collide with this noticing.
As you observe life, particulars will help you ease away from cliches and tired descriptions. Believe in your own ability to see the world in fresh ways. Listen to your inner chatter—those comments you make in your head but would never say out loud. These can inform your characters’ attitudes when you write.
Writing with specifics demands concrete sensory details, active verbs and your own special way of interpreting life. Practice replacing general words or phrases with particulars. Let your take on abstract concepts be fresh and unique to you. Zooming in the camera helps keep readers engaged and excited about your story. The more particular your writing, the greater chance of attracting a readership.