Specificity in Writing

Slice of bread with coffee, cheese and jam kept on table.
The food (general) was appealing (abstract). The warm bread with nut-brown crust and yeasty aroma made my mouth water (concrete and specific). masahiro Makino / Getty Images

In composition, words that are concrete and particular rather than general, abstract, or vague. Contrast with abstract language and blurred words. Adjective: specific.

The value of a piece of writing "depends upon the quality of its details," says Eugene Hammond. "Specificity is truly a goal of writing" (Teaching Writing, 1983).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Etymology: From the Latin, "kind, species"

What is Specificity?

  • "Specific, concrete nouns express meaning more vividly than general or abstract ones. Although general and abstract language is sometimes necessary to convey your meaning, ordinarily prefer specific, concrete alternatives. . . "Nouns such as thing, area, aspect, factor, and individual are especially dull and imprecise." (Diana Hacker, The Bedford Handbook, 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's , 2002)
  • "You are more likely to make a definite impression on your reader if you use specific, rather than abstract, words. Rather than 'We were affected by the news,' write 'We were relieved by the news' or 'We were devastated by the news.' Use words that convey precisely and vividly what you are thinking or feeling.

    "Compare 'Cutting down all those beautiful old trees really changed the appearance of the landscape' with 'In two weeks, the loggers transformed a ten thousand-acre forest of old growth red and white pine into a field of ruts and stubble.'"
    (Stephen Wilbers, Keys to Great Writing. Writer's Digest Books, 2000)

    Making Distinctions

    • "Minor distinctions can make a major difference. Specificity is what distinguishes poor from good from brilliant writing. As a writer, you must train your mind to be, above all, exacting. Make distinctions upon distinctions. Don't rest until you have exactly the right word.

      "This may demand you do some research: if so, check a dictionary or thesaurus, ask an expert."
      (Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. Oxford University Press, 2010)

      Engaging the Senses

      • "Replace abstract and general words with concrete and specific words. Abstract and general words allow multiple interpretations. Concrete words engage the five senses: see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Specific words include real names, times, places, and numbers. Consequently, concrete and specific words are more precise and, therefore, more interesting. Abstract and general words are ambiguous and, therefore, dull:
        The food ( general) was appealing ( abstract).
        The warm bread with nut-brown crust and yeasty aroma made my mouth water ( concrete and specific).
        Your authority as a writer comes from your concrete and specific words, not your education or job title."
        (Daniel Graham and Judith Graham, Can Do Writing: The Proven Ten-Step System for Fast and Effective Business Writing. John Wiley, 2009)

      Julia Cameron on Specificity and the Writing Life

      • "I believe in specificity. I trust it. Specificity is like breathing: one breath at a time, that is how life is built. One thing at a time, one thought, one word at a time. That is how a writing life is built.

        "Writing is about living. It is about specificity. Writing is about seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, touching. . . .

        "Writing regularly and steadily, we strive to be specific. We focus on our writing the way, as a mediator, we focus on our breath. We 'notice' the precise word that occurs to us. We use that word and then we 'notice' another word. It is a listening process, a focusing on what rises up so we can take it down."
        (Julia Cameron, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. Penguin, 1999)

        But Don't Overdo It

        • "Before we get carried away and load up our stories with specifics as if they're plates at an all-you-can-eat buffet, it pays to keep Mary Poppins' sage advice in mind: enough is as good as a feast. Too many specifics can overwhelm the reader. Our brain can hold only about seven facts at a time. If we're given too many details too quickly, we begin to shut down."
          (Lisa Cron, Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence. Ten Speed Press, 2012)

        The Lighter Side of Specificity

        • Detective Joe West: ​You were wrong.  Barry Allen: I have been wrong a lot this week. You're gonna have to be more specific.(Jesse L. Martin and Grant Gustin, "Fastest Man Alive." The Flash, 2014)

        Pronunciation: SPESS-i-FISS-i-tee