Want to write better stories, essays, and blog posts? There's one trick that you can do to easily become a better writer.
I've read a lot of writing by amateur writers both in my work as a professional editor and as the moderator of this blog, and I've found that there's one, single piece of advice I give most often.
If you master this technique, you will quickly go from a mediocre writer to someone who writes stories that people read and say, “Wow! You wrote this?” So how do you become a better writer?
Five years ago, I spent nearly a year traveling the world, going to countries like Vietnam, Croatia, Uganda, Turkey, and Ireland. Beyond just being the trip of a lifetime, it gave me an amazing opportunity to write.
I wrote about the huge, redbrick cathedral we lived next to in Osijek, Croatia. I wrote about our strong, dark neighbors in the jungles of Thailand who helped us lift the thick beams to build a new house for our host. I wrote about reading Egyptian literature in a café in Dublin.
After reading my writing, my friend Dez began imitating the detail and specificity of my stories on her blog. Soon, she had friends and family emailing her, telling her what a great writer she was, how they felt like they were right there with her in Israel and Romania and Cambodia.
It's easy to write this way, to pack more detail into each sentence, but when you're more specific, it draws your reader in. It allows them to see what your characters see, to hear and smell what they're hearing and smelling. In other words, it allows you to become a better storyteller.
Three Simple Ways to Be More Specific
What does this actually look like? How do you add specificity to your writing? Here are three ways to be more specific:
1. Focus On Detail
“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” —Anton Chekhov
“Show, don't tell” is one of the most common—and most overused—writing cliches out there. The reality is there are times when it makes sense to “tell.”
However, what I love about the quote above from Chekhov is that it shows the power of specific detail to open the imagination of your reader.
To summon detail in your writing, focus on your five senses: touch, taste, sight, smell, sound. When you set the scene, challenge yourself to use each of your five senses.
Depending on your scene you might not be able to write using all of them, but by stretching your observation skills, you'll give your reader a much richer experience. Without realizing why, your readers will think, “Wow. This person can really write!”
(For more on the writing rule, “Show, Don't Tell,” check out our post The Secret to Show, Don't Tell.)
2. Focus On Moments
“The mark of a master is to select only a few moments but give us a lifetime.” —Robert McKee
Great storytellers don't try to tell every little detail of a character's life. Instead, they select a few, precious moments and then go so deep into those moments that it's as if we're living those moments with the characters.
Of course, this is more difficult than it sounds because when you're first writing a story, you may not know which moments will be important to a character's life.
This is why the most important, and usually most difficult task of every writer isn't the creation process but the editing process, when you choose those important moments and cut the rest away.
3. Write Dialogue
Dialogue is ultimate form of specificity because you're writing exactly what the characters actually said. However, it always surprises me when I read writing by amateur writers and they describe what the characters are talking about instead of using dialogue. This is so lazy!
Write out the dialogue. Don't describe the conversation.
By the way, remember to be specific in your dialogue, too. Cut out any unimportant small talk and only include dialogue that moves the story forward.
(Want to know one common mistake that will ruin your dialogue? Check out our post A Critical DON'T For Writing Dialogue.)
Above All, Don't Be Vague
When your writing is vague, it creates no emotional response in the reader. In fact, vague writing wastes your readers time.
No matter what, don't be vague!
Of course, it can be difficult to tell when your own writing is vague.
This is why it's so important to have a good editor or critique group who can tell you when you need to be more specific. If you're serious about being a better writer, then you need to learn to be more specific. It's not difficult, but it does require you to open your senses to what your characters are experiencing.
Do you struggle with being specific in your writing?
Today, let's practice writing as specifically as possible. Take a look around the room you're in right now. Focus on one detail, like the shadow on a wall caused by a picture frame.
Then, start writing. As you write, remember to use as many of your five senses as you can. Describe the room for fifteen minutes.
When you're finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to read a few practices from your fellow writers and comment on whether they were specific enough.