the forgotten art of specificity

When I taught AP courses, we had these things called embedded quotes. 

In papers, students were expected to back up their thoughts and assumptions and opinions with specific quotes from the text. 

Like, for instance, writing this —

In his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne mentions his desire for people to listen by "again [seizing] the public by the button" (5). This phrase creates the image of a man grabbing one by his collar, forcing his stance. The reader has no choice here. He or she must pay attention to Hawthorne's experiences living in the Custom House.

It wasn't enough to say It's obvious Nathaniel Hawthorne wanted us to pay attention. The students had to show us how they knew this. 

Be specific was something I wrote on almost every single paper that crossed my desk. 

I understood that Bellingham was inherently conflicted, but I wanted them to catch that he was described as "rigidly severe" yet surrounded himself with "worldly enjoyment" (127). 

It wasn't enough for me to read that Cathy was a scary character in East of Eden. Show me how Steinbeck built her as a monster with human skin. 

I knew that John Proctor held his name as something sacred, but I wanted the students to show me they understood the inner turmoil he possessed in giving his name and why he screams at the end of The Crucible "but it is my name! How may I live without my name?" 

Call it metacognition—call it higher level thinking—I just wanted to know my students could take a text and create an argument based on what they read. 

I wanted to know they could use their words well. 


Since leaving the classroom, I've noticed something. We don't like specificity. It's too much work. 

We say we love a movie, but when pressed for reasons, we mention a brief platitude of it was just really well done.

We gush about a book, and when asked what made it so amazing, we come back with the main guy character was just so hot or I didn't want it to end or it made me stay up all night reading! 

We read a blog post we love and comment yes or this or amen. 

It's in our relationships too. We say someone can absolutely do something, but we don't mention the specific reasons why we see this potential in them. We support, but keep it generic. 

Or someone says something in conversation and we agree, but instead of building on their premise we say ditto or right?! or I know. 

Often, this last one is because we're wanting to talk about something else. We're not really good listeners, as a whole. 

I say we because I'm guilty of all of these times about a million. In a rush to get my point across, I can settle for lesser words. 

But does it work?

Words are important. Our whys are important. I'm starting to reach for specifics, even when it's difficult. If anything, it's slowing me down (which is probably a good thing, honestly) and forcing me to search for the best word, not just the easiest. 

What I've learned: when you begin to take more time building your own personal specifics, this practice will bleed into your writing. 

I'm reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and am amazed by her incredible specificity. I'm only a few chapters in, but there have been numerous times in which she hasn't settled for the typical generic details of characterization. She's aiming for inclusion of human moments — those motions and thoughts we practice without realization. 

The vigilance of surroundings. 
The marking of time. 
The study of personal objects. 
The fantasies involved with difficult relationships. 

Grief is a finicky beast, and she's wrangling him with her words in the beginning of this book. It's mesmerizing and makes me want to keep reading. 

It's also making me more aware of my own movements throughout the day. 

How I always look up at the sky when I take my dog to the park. 
How I look out my study window to watch the wind move the branches of the large oak tree. 
My own marking of time. 
The way my eyes move—and what they focus on most. 
The taste and feel of things—whether it be food or drink or words or situations. 
How many times FedEx or UPS or a moving truck stops in front of the office—and how often this interrupts my flow.

Sure. This makes for longer first drafts. But details never hurt anyone. If anything, they spice up our writing and reveal to others what makes us unique. 

Be specific. 

Don't just tell us something. Show us. Pull a Hawthorne and seize us by our own hyperactive button. Make us want to keep reading, and make us want to come back for more.

Posted on August 21, 2014 and filed under words that work.