This week we learned two in-depth skills for our writing – specificity and six-word memoirs. We also learned the importance of editing our work and making second, third or more drafts in order to perfect word choice and syntax. Specificity is to make something highly specific rather than highly generic. An example of not using it would be:
“A guy walked into the bar and ordered a drink.”
Using specificity changes the sentence into this:
“A grizzled prospector stumbled into the dark saloon and demanded a bottle of whiskey.”
Specificity is a common but valuable technique for writers to use, as Julia Cameron (1999) explains…
“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.”
I agree completely with these words and share a similar mindset, as I believe I already exercise specificity to some extent. Upon learning it, I understand it more thoroughly and know when I am using it. Below is my own piece, rewriting the “A guy walked into the bar and ordered a drink” example seen above into my own work.
For the first time in hours, the door slid open with a swoosh and a chk. A man walked through, ducking his head down momentarily to avoid a bump, already wrestling with the hood of his coat and letting it down. Drip drip, the rain left its trail, in the same way it would when a dog shakes itself.
There’s a small pause, small green eyes panning from right to left. The drifting smoke and dim neon lighting wasn’t a hindrance. It was a rare sight. A bar with few patrons and the silence to match. Two men, passed out at a table. A woman giggling tipsily to her female partner opposite. There was no point in paying attention to it for more than a second, as the goliath trudged over to the bar, meeting the server’s eyes.
Both were indifferent. Both were silent. The server had already began pouring a swirling blue drink that twinkled and sparkled. To a child, it was a galaxy in a cup. To anyone else, it was a ‘Blue Star’.
As a piece that would be an introduction to a cyberpunk story, I feel particularly proud of this one. Using specificity, I turned a generic and bland sentence into something much longer and much more detailed. If anything, the fact that it is 3 paragraphs from 1 sentence could be seen as a detriment, as it might be too long.
However, leaving behind the possible issue of length, I would likely experiment with telling even more but in the same amount of words. I would also hint more that the bar has futuristic technology – a bit more than ‘neon lighting’. The door making a ‘swoosh’ and ‘chk’ noise could be pinned to any kind of door, so it needs more clarity.
As mentioned above, another skill we learned was how to make and use six-word memoirs. The aim behind writing a six-word memoir is to tell a message, making heavy use of implicit language and word choice in order to create discussion. Two examples of the six-word memoir can be seen below.
Catholic school backfired. Sin is in!
– Nikki Beland
Nobody cared, then they did. Why?
– Chuck Klosterman
The use of punctuation is extremely important in these memoirs. With the limited space available, a comma or a question mark says a lot. In class, we all made one or two memoirs of our own. Below is one of mine.
Disconnected and fearful. My empty childhood.
I’m alright with this, even if it is depressingly honest and personal. For reasons, I didn’t share this with the class during our lesson and for the same reasons, I don’t feel like sharing the meaning behind it here, but I feel confident I can make six-word memoirs now that I have had a go myself.
Finally, as an additional piece of work, we were given the task of editing an existing piece of work. While I already know this skill – as I’ve edited and rewritten my own pieces several times in the past – it is still something to note here. Here, I chose a single paragraph from a story I wrote before the course started. This is the original.
Caroline hobbled over to the opposite end of the room. She could faintly make out the outline of a door and, where there’s a door, there’s bound to be a light switch nearby. Every step she took was careful and precise. Her mind was abuzz with the idea that there could be something on the ground that she doesn’t see! Though, she immediately felt relaxed upon reaching the wall unharmed and unscarred.
There are several things I could have done better, here. For the context of a girl walking through a dark room, ‘hobbled’ doesn’t seem to be the right word to use. ‘Her mind was abuzz’ could have been said differently and in such a way that better suited the fear she felt. Seeing this, I edited the piece to better suit the character’s emotions and thus, create a better atmosphere.
Caroline could faintly make out the outline of a door, all the way on the opposite end of the room. Where there’s a door, there’s bound to be a light switch nearby – that’s the thought that ran through her head as she tiptoed her way over. Anything to ease her mind. With this bedroom being entirely unfamiliar, she had no way of knowing if there were objects strewn across the floor. That frightened her more than the darkness itself.
Here, I believe I have done a much better job with word choice and sentence structure. Instead of ‘hobbled’, it is ‘tiptoed’. Instead of ‘her mind was abuzz’, it is ‘anything to ease her mind’. Overall, I’m happy with the editing showed here. Since the original was written a few months ago, it also shows signs of improvement and slight changes in my writing style.
- Cameron, Julia. (1999) The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. New York City, NY: Penguin Putnum Inc.
- Smith, Larry. (2008) Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. New York City, NY: HarperCollins.