The Power of the Specific

May 25, 2012
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by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

June 2012

"Specific language is what allows the reader to picture what you’re writing about…"

Specific language is what allows the reader to picture what you’re writing about, smell it, feel it, hear it, taste it, and know what the emotional tone is. And there won’t be a need for a lot of extra words.

For example, “He slammed the door,” is an angry gesture. We know what the character is feeling. We don’t need to say, “He slammed the door angrily.”

But specific language isn’t always about trimming a sentence down to its essentials. Specific language allows the reader’s mind to make creative leaps, which is part of the fun of reading fiction. Here is the beginning of a section of an E.S. Creamer’s short story Stung published in the Antioch Review.

“When I visit him in that room, its walls as white as the backs of the get-well cards that well-wishers send, I wonder if his skin is milky from being so long indoors or if that, too, comes from his bones.”

Right away we understand where we are: the antiseptic white, the get well cards, the whiteness of his skin" signals a hospital room. This opening wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting if he Creamer had written, “When I visit him in the hospital room.” Also, this is an example of accumulation—a detail here, a detail there that all adds up. It’s just the way you might look at a Seurat painting from up close and only see dots. But once you step back, you see the images that are formed by the organization of all those individual dots.

"Specific writing allows us to omit a lot. When we give concrete images, we have to be sure to give the correct ones."

Specific writing allows us to omit a lot. When we give concrete images, we have to be sure to give the correct ones. If you’re introducing a woman character, for example, you can give so much detail about her by writing, “I left my Manolo Blahniks in my Lexis,” rather than “I left my shoes in the car.” “I left my Timberlines in the pickup,” would convey a workman.

Pulitzer-Prize winning Anne Tyler fixes characters in your mind through specific details. Meet Nandina, from Tyler’s latest novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, (Alfred A. Knoph, 2012). “…she stood nearly six feet tall even after shucking off her banana boat shoes…” Here no designer labels are needed. We know Nandina couldn’t be bothered with fancy shoes or she wouldn’t be “shucking” them off. Her verb choice tell it all.

Being specific doesn’t mean that you tell everything. If you say, “I left the house at 5:00 a.m. and didn’t get home until 7:00 pm., there’s no need to tell how you locked the door or put the key in your ignition. Get a feel for what you don’t need to say, which is equally important as what you do need to.

Louise Erdrich in her New Yorker story, Nero. Nero one of third dog the character’s grandparents had had by that name. Look at how, through using specific language, Erdrich manages not only to describe the dog, but the poverty of the people around him. “He (Nero) caught these objects (pie tins) and chewed them to lethal shreds of metal, which littered the ground, along with the dung, and had to be picked up by one of the old men who worked odd jobs in exchange for schnapps.”

"…choose the specific words you need to show just what you want the reader to feel."

You need to choose the specific words you need to show just what you want the reader to feel. In the short story, The Same Sky by Claire Davis from Labors of the Heart (St. Martin’s Press, 2006) describes a pickup truck hitting a horse. First she tells you what’s not true. For example, she says that time doesn’t stand still, that there is no slow motion. Notice all the action and drama in the words that she chooses to tell you what does happen:

“Miles of nighthawks startling up into her headlights like hands thrown up to in the air. The high prairie roused awake at night, jackrabbits cutting a zigzag course alongside the truck. A burrow owl flushed out of the roadside, running head forward, tilting into the dark ahead of her lights, legs pumping like some skinny-shanked old man.”

At this point, she doesn’t know yet that she hit a deer, but when you find out, there’s an aha moment of what that “skinny-shanked old man” really was. Look at the verbs: cutting, flushed, running, tilting, pumping.” They are not general, but nailing down a specific action. And her image of the skinny-shanked old man is perfect for a deer.

Using specific language will help you avoid clichés. “A deer in headlights” would have not only told us nothing, but also told us too much.

Poems, stories, and novels are created sentence by sentence, word by word. Let yourself write in a burst, but then go back, sniff at each of your sentences to see if they reek of cliché or if you could find a word that would be more specific. The use of specific language will help you create a work that is time well-spent for you and for your readers.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro




Rochelle Shapiro is a regular columnist for Authorlink.
Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: or


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