To improve your writing, get specific

My memoir writing workshop spring season starts up this week. (If South Madison is convenient for you, there are still a few seats in the house for Thursday 6:00-7:45, 8-week workshop.) I will share some writing tips here to complement the workshop content this spring. Today’s tip:

Improve your writing with specificity.

If you want your reader to hold in mind the same image, idea, or emotion that you are having, don’t send abstract words to do the job. Take “awesome” or “incredible.” If I use those words you know I was moved, but how? In what way? Moved to feel what? This is where concrete language proves its effectiveness.

Let me introduce you to the ladder of abstraction: it leads from abstract down to concrete.

  • Transportation
  • Vehicle
  • Car
  • Ford
  • Pinto

If I say “transportation” you know I’m thinking about how to get from point A to point B, but not much more. “Vehicle” narrows it down, as does “car.” If I choose to say “Ford” you can start to draw some conclusions about me–my social class, or my tastes, perhaps. But if I say “Pinto” a whole world of associations and connotations open up. “Cigarette lighter on wheels” is probably one of the first to come to mind. See what a difference a word makes? (Remember what Mark Twain said: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”)

Abstract terms refer to ideas and concepts; they have no physical referents. They rely on you and me having shared definitions to communicate, which means if we don’t come from identical backgrounds, something is going to get lost in translation. Concrete terms refer to objects or events. We can sense them. We can call up detailed memories of times we’ve sensed them in the past. Abstract terms change meaning with time and circumstance, but concrete terms remain relatively stable. Not only that–they are more interesting. They show–not tell. Compare “I support feminism” with “I carried a placard in a Take Back the Night March.” Which one makes you say, “That’s interesting–tell me more”?

To climb down the ladder, try clustering.

Clustering is a brainstorming technique frequently used for pre-writing. That means finding what you want to say and how you want to say it before you sit down to write. I recommend all kinds of pre-writing techniques because frankly, they make you feel like a better writer. Words comes more easily, one sentence becomes the next with more flow. And when you feel like you’re writing well, you generally ARE producing a better first draft.

Clustering allows you to note ideas as they occur to you, without imposing linearity. To cluster, just write the word you want to explore in the middle of a sheet of paper. (That word can be abstract.) Circle it, then free associate. Let a web of words spiral out from there, circling them and linking them as connections appear to you. Notice whether they are abstract or concrete–as if by magic, each chain will likely move down the ladder. When one chain of associations feels exhausted, go back to your central word and begin again. A word as simple as “brown” can have dozens of associations.


From Chapel Valley workshop, 2005


Clustering can feel like your brain is a popcorn-popper. It’s fun. Try it to drive your writing from abstract to concrete, to find the tangible expressions that move “transportation” to Pintos,  “brown” to mud pies and hot fudge sundaes,  “feminism” to richly detailed memories of events that show your values in action.

To write memoirs that bring others into your experience, feeling and seeing and  sensing alongside you, remember: specificity!

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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