Are You Being Specific Enough?



Do you hate research?  Are you okay with being ‘close enough’?  Does it really matter if you tell us what kind of trees we’re looking at?

Before you answer any of those questions, be sure to remember that small distinctions make a huge difference.

Being specific can separate bad from good from great writing.  Am I looking at a bunch of tall and large trees?  Or am I looking at a forest of towering redwoods?

Yeah, research sucks.  It’s homework, and who in the history of the world has ever liked homework?  Nobody.  But having the right information is important. If you’ve convinced yourself that getting a book 90% right is enough, that you can make up the rest and people won’t notice, you need to get that thought out of your head immediately.  Because it’s the details that often make the book.

Details are what lend authenticity to your story and make it real.  You story should have enough specific information in it that your readers think you can’t possibly be making it up.

In Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages, he says, “We must remember that reading is as much about education as it is entertainment, and even small flourishes can help serve this function and add a whole new dimension to a text.”

If you take this to the extreme it’s bad news, but if you’re careful about it your reader will want to come back for more.  How many times have you read a spy book and thought about how cool it is to learn about the world of espionage?  How many times have you read something with a little science in it and been happy to finally understand how it works?  Can you remember the last time you actually appreciated how master thieves operate, what you call the sail at the front vs. the back of a ship, how the law works, what politics and culture are like in small towns and foreign countries, why your mind or body work the way they do?

There is a ton of information sprinkled into the fiction we read.  We don’t consciously notice that we’re learning, but we are.  And we like it.

So be specific.  Teach your reader something.  Make your book real.  Put in the work to go all the way, because if you don’t, your reader will notice the 1% that’s wrong instead of the 99% that’s right.

Happy writing – as a reward for making it to the end of a post I wrote while watching football, here’s a color thesaurus courtesy of Ingrid Sundberg to help you correctly name any color imaginable.

28 comments on “Are You Being Specific Enough?”

  1. thank you for the colour thesaurus 🙂 and naturally you’re right about research (it’s much easier now that there is google and wiki if i have a doubt about something, i look for it to be sure. but of course, real writers do real-life research but there is no harm in searching the net) about reading… i cannot emphasize the importance of reading in connection with learning.
    since english is not my principal language, there were and still are lots of words i don’t know the meaning of and how to use them. there used to be a trio of books in my toilet that i read thoroughly while sitting in there to pass the time and it helped me a lot. they are dictionary (for obvious reason) a vocabulary (to learn how to use those difficult words) and a thesaurus (for finding synonyms and antonyms) if i find words that i never encountered before, i look it up. i learned bunch of new words this way and increased my vocabulary.

    1. I commend you for your diligence in improving your English by looking up unfamiliar words. English is my native language, but I enjoy learning new words, too. I wish more people were willing to do that; I read so many remarks by native English readers who say that if they have to look up a word in a book, they stop reading that book.

      1. I would not want to read a book which is peppered with unnecessary fancy words either, but those that are crucial to the story and cleverly scattered across the pages are joy to discover and always come as a pleasant surprise. Might come in handy someday too.

        Life is a never ending learning process and there is always room for improvement and I am all for observing and absorbing, taking what is important disregarding what does not matter, enriching my life through the experience.

  2. Ah, yes this is an important post. I think Noah Lukeman also said something about knowing the right word for something you are describing can save you many words. And I remember reading about the specifics he mentioned, and it really grabbed me 🙂

  3. I actually love the research part – it’s a continuation of my lifelong self teaching. The problem is not getting sidetracked by the learning! It’s very balancing being a creative on the one hand and a fact finder on the other. It’s very satisfying for both sides of the brain (I’m thinking more of balancing my visual artist side here). Pure imagination and hard fact. Love it. Thanks and hope the football result was good lol

  4. Too true, the devil is in the details, as always.
    Research is, as Yvette says, part of our self teaching and we would be remiss not to put in the groundwork to fill the story out.
    There is a reverse to the medal, also.
    I found that, in my research, whole story lines presented themselves as I delved deeper into the background of my characters, their countries of origin, their occupation, everything.
    Thanks for the thought you put into this post, a timely reminder indeed.

  5. I think that the desire to communicate knowledge is a big part of what prompts people to write. Tolkien with linguistics, for instance. It’s so true that the authentic details are what make a story come together.

  6. So true, about research separating good from bad writing. When a writer is wrong about something I’m quite familiar with, esp. a location or occupation, it throws me out of the story right there. So I shake my head and wonder just what else the author got wrong. I agree with Yvette: the problem is not getting sidetracked!

  7. “There is a ton of information sprinkled into the fiction we read. We don’t consciously notice that we’re learning, but we are. And we like it.”

    This is my favorite aspect of writing historical fiction. Although the story and characters may not be real, the atmosphere and any historical events going on in the background are. One of my favorite commentaries has been when someone told me they learned something from one of my books and didn’t even notice it as it went by them on the page. To weave information into the story without bogging it down is the key.

  8. I’m going to take what might be a somewhat contrarian approach here because I fear there’s a risk of misconstruction here around your 1% and 99% comment. I think what you are arguing for is accuracy to the level demanded by your story. I hope so because in my view something can be ‘right enough’. Graham Swift who won the Booker Prize for Last Orders was asked about his research for the book (it ends in a seaside town called Margate). He admitted he made it up and never bothered to check beyond read a travel brochure and look at a couple of photos (pre Google days – 1996). That was what he needed. He admitted that a long term resident might take issue with some of his descriptions but they didn’t because they didn’t need to. Naturally you cannot do without any research and you would be foolish to do no research but you can overdo it. Like everything in life, and it applies to writing as much as anywhere else Perfect is the Enemy of the Good and we aim to be good writers not perfect ones. So be careful about chasing that missing 1%.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! To be honest I do agree with you to an extent. I think the point that needed to be driven home is that sometimes ‘good enough’ really isn’t, especially if you want your book to stand out as something truly amazing. “Accuracy to the level demanded by your story” is spot on. It’s dangerous to take what happened with Graham Swift as a lesson, though, because not everyone can do what a Booker Prize winner can do, and to your point of it being pre-Google days: readers are a lot smarter now. Access to information is so quick and easy that a much larger group of readers will be informed about the topic of your book than ever before.

      It’s also very circumstantial – if you’re writing about a few characters in a small town who aren’t doing anything that requires particular expertise (and there a tons of great books just like this, filled with action and tension of their own kind), research can be minimal. But if you’re doing anything with a scope that’s a bit larger, you better get the details right.

      And sometimes it isn’t about avoiding mistakes – it’s about taking something that might be true on its own and turning it into something perfectly right. Not always, because you don’t want to beat your readers with too much precision. But sometimes specificity can paint a picture that has 1,000 little details instead of just 100, and that can be the defining difference between an amateur story and a celebrated book.

      But you’re right about the points you touched on. Thanks for the comment.

  9. Good advice, and it’s got me thinking about a couple of details I may be leaving out.

    But there was one case where doing the research actually led me to be non-specific in one way. I changed and added some details to be more realistic, but there’s a reason it’s still not referred to by a specific name and it’s not just because I’d rather be vague than wrong.

  10. I have wrestled with this very issue for years. I think part of it depends on the genre. Some are more predisposed toward details than others. For example, I have been reading some military sci-fi lately, and those authors are *very* devoted to the minutiae of astrophysics and quantum theory. They make it (sometimes too often) an essential part of the story. On the other hand, I’ve read other books that are fairly light on detail, leaving much of the imagery up to me to fill in as I read. Sometimes it works for me, sometimes it doesn’t.
    Let me tell you, though, it doesn’t get much worse than being forced to research the history of guns and gunpowder because I’m thinking about introducing firearms in my originally-conceived pre-industrial society! 🙂

  11. I’ve done it the old fashioned way at the library an by actually ‘”writing letters”, gasp, to people and companies for information. Can you imagine waiting, actually waiting for up to two weeks for an answer. Now we hate to wait just seconds for the computer to spit back hundreds of reference points on any subject we can imagine.
    currently I’m polishing a historical novel set in colonial America. Accuracy would not be possible without a lot of research. But it is a real learning experience. As much fun as reading a historical novel, if not more.

  12. Wow, never thought of it that way. But it is so true. I know when I edit my own work, I usually check on those things. For instance, I once wrote a scene where the kids came down on Christmas morning. I wanted them to open a couple of toys. I knew my timeline so I looked up what games/ toys came out that year. It’s the details that make the reader connect. I’ve tossed books aside when they weren’t realistic enough or the timeline wasn’t quite right.

  13. I actually like researching. I get so many new ideas that way. That, and I’m paranoid about sounding like an idiot in my books, so try to make sure everything is as accurate as possible. All of my favorite novels are those that are “sprinkled with a ton of information,” as you say. Of course, I’m kind of one of those geeky girls that really likes learning, so… Great post! – Oh, and thank you so much for the color thesaurus! That was a very nice treat!

  14. Sometimes I like to make stuff up and just pretend I did the research, your way seems really good, too. Great post, glad I found you. The color thesaurus, nice touch, like you gave us a great gift and then tossed some candy at us, too.

  15. Ha! Interesting about the teaching part. When I wrote my novel, “Sometimes Marriage is a Real Crime” friends warned me that I was teaching someone how to dispose of a philandering spouse. It took me years to publish because I was afraid I’d be arrested if my handsome hubby suddenly died, 🙂 Praise God we are still best friends. Great post! Thanks!

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