B.S. is one of the abbreviations I pencil in the margin of prose I’m reviewing –my own or a client’s. It stands for Be Specific, though it evokes a different two-word expletive that means much the same thing.
The best way to be specific is to know what you want to say – and sometimes that takes several meandering drafts. Once you’ve figured out what you want to accomplish in a scene or a post, a chapter, a story or a report, you can guide your reader to understand you clearly with specific language – with words.
Words can be general, like the word food – the fuel that sustains life. A general word fails to give your reader much guidance, leaving her to imagine grapes when you imagined roast beef.
Words that are more specific are limited in scope, like the word snack – which is a small amount of food between meals. This narrows what your reader can imagine, though one reader might think carrot sticks and another chocolate chip cookies with milk.
Words that are concrete are even more specific, and tell your reader exactly what to imagine. Make the snack chips, and you’ve given your reader the kind of narrow direction that allows him to see just what you intended.
Of course, words don’t exist by themselves, and the more specific you can make them all, the clearer your reader will see. Here are two different examples.
George held the bag between his knees, pushing a steady stream of chips in his mouth as he sat in traffic.
Jeremy set out blue corn chips in a yellow bowl to brighten the November afternoon.
Here are some other examples of general, specific and concrete words:
- Clothes, business casual, khakis
- Writing, poetry, sonnet
- Birds, raptors, eagle
You get the idea.
Adjectives are another opportunity to Be Specific. Here’s an example from My Writing Bible, The Harbrace College Handbook:
- Bad planks: rotten, warped, scorched, knotty, termite-eaten
- Bad children: rowdy, rude, ungrateful, selfish, perverse
- Bad meat: tough, tainted, overcooked, contaminated
Every time we use a general adjective, we miss an opportunity to guide our readers closer to what we mean. English is a rich language, so there’s no excuse for using small when you could say so much more with tiny, microscopic, sub-atomic, undeveloped; or big when you could say plump, hulking, towering, Herculean.
A thesaurus is a dictionary of synonyms, and it’s a good place to find words. I find mine in The Original Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, originally published in 1852 and revised many times since. I love poking around in it, and find it much more complete and satisfying to use than the thesaurus in my word-processor.
It is a writer’s job to direct readers to reimagine for themselves what you mean. Since readers bring their own, varying, experiences and prejudices to your work, you must give specific instructions that narrow how your work can be understood. You must be authoritarian. And one of the best methods is to cut the BS and Be Specific with your words.
While I’m away, I’m rerunning some posts with writing advice worth repeating. This post originally appeared here on December 3, 2013.
When I’m not traveling, I live a rural and rooted life in Vermont, which I chronicle in my weekly blog, Living in Place. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.
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