Writing and Improv 3: Being Specific

Writing and Improv 3: Being Specific

In both improv and writing, I think a lot of us have an impulse to leave things “open” and “general” if we possibly can. It’s common to see beginning improvisers starting a scene with something like:

A: “How’s it going?”

B: “Yeah, I’m alright, you?”

A: “Yeah, everything’s certainly fine with me.”

B: “Do you want some of this?”

A: “Yep, I’ll have a bit of that.”

It’s as if neither improviser wants to commit and narrow down the field of possible options, whether through politeness or “you firstness” or for some other reason. As an audience, it’s not nearly as much fun. As my friend Sylvia Bishop, half of the legendary improvised cabaret duo Peablossom Cabaret, writes:

“Specificity is always interesting: you are not just at the zoo, you are by the penguin enclosure and you have been there for three hours. You are not just old friends, you have been friends since you met at karate class. It honest truly doesn’t matter what the details are, they don’t have to be funny or fresh, any and all details are good.”

This is a case where the advice from improv translates pretty directly to popular non-fiction: one of the single most common comments I find myself making as an editor is when a writer brings me a piece explaining a concept via an example that involves unspecified “thingies.” Imagine a factory that makes some kind of object, the author will write, or Imagine there’s a big pile of widgets, and I’m trying to count how many widgets are in my pile. As an editor I scribble my note in the margin: pick a specific thingie. And it really doesn’t matter what the specific thingie is: it could be Imagine a factory that makes socks or it could be Imagine I have a pile of hammers or it could be almost-anything else. The specific object chosen actively doesn’t have to be “fresh” or “funny”, and in fact it often feels like you’re trying too hard if you try to make the object original or (heaven forbid) wacky. And yet, somehow, the simple fact of choosing a specific everyday object to talk about makes the story so much more engaging than when it’s about a generalised everyday object.

One possible exception I see here is certain contexts where you want to reduce the cognitive load on the reader and have reason to think that any concrete details would draw too much attention (this might be true if you’re writing about a relatively difficult topic and want to include a throwaway example to illustrate a certain point about it, but want to make it clear to the reader that she doesn’t need to focus on the throwaway example… which is arguably what I’m doing right now in this parenthetical comment). However, I think even in this situation the best solution will often be to pick a mundane but specific object (shoes, bricks) and put that in the example without drawing any further attention to it (that is, by not doing any further description of it, or building any jokes or side-comments around it).

Specificity not only makes our writing more engaging, it also often helps us come up with new ideas. Sylvia continues,

“Once you have been specific there will be ‘logical’ consequences of the things you have said that seem obvious to you (but will surprise everyone else because everyone’s brain is different) and the result of this is often hilarious. If you are vague it will become difficult to know what to say next.”
I’ve often personally experienced this effect in my own writing – I often find little ideas or additions “writing themselves” once I’ve put specific details down on the page. (This is partly an extension of the broader phenomenon that just putting things down on the page, rather than storing them in your head, seems to inspire new ideas and new possibilities). What I like about the quote is that it gives a specific hypothesis for why that might be true in this particular situation: namely, that specific details allow us to follow what (we personally see as) “obvious” consequences, which to other people are non-obvious, and therefore engaging and satisfying.
Finally, there’s an interesting question of why we have the impulse to be general in the first place. In non-fiction writing, I suspect the impulse might come from the academic parts of our brains which are used to making an argument as general as it is allowed to be. If the argument we’re making applies to all possible goods and services, we’re tempted to write our anecdote starting with “imagine a person selling a good or service”: after all, why cut down the example to a tiny sub-section of the domain in which it applies? But I think this misunderstands how the human brain works: I think it’s easier for the reader if you write “imagine a person selling spaghetti,” and trust her to understand if the same argument applies to other goods and services as well. There is something that’s simply more memorable, more engaging, and more interesting (in the non-vague sense of “arousing our interest”) about specific details. Like standing in the penguin enclosure at the zoo for three hours.

This post is adapted from Uri Bram’s book Write Harder: clear, actionable tips for writing charming and compelling non-fiction. You can get the first three chapters (plus occasional free content) here.

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