The Ten Commandments of Writing:

2. Thou Shalt Not Use General Words When Thou Can Be Specific

“Two gray pencils on a yellow surface” by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

In the Bible’s Old Testament, God speaks directly to Moses and gives him the Ten Commandments. Fortunately, a similar code exists for writers. The second commandment of writing follows.

Thou shalt not use general words when thou can be specific.

Can you identify the problem in the following sentence? “The boy and girl ran down the street and into the building.”

No, it’s not a sentence fragment or a run-on sentence. The sentence has no spelling errors or punctuation mistakes either. Technically, in fact, the sentence is fine because it has a subject (“boy and girl”) and a predicate (“ran”) followed by two prepositional phrases (“down the street and into the building”). The problem with this sentence is that it has no life. This sentence has no passion or emotion or feeling. The sentence is lifeless because the writer has used no adjectives and has used a general verb rather than a specific verb. Your writing may also be lifeless unless you concentrate on using specific adjectives and verbs.

Adjectives. Adjectives are used to describe nouns and pronouns. This particular sentence has four nouns: boy, girl, street, and building. Yet, the reader knows nothing about the nouns.

How old, for example, are the boy and the girl? What do they look like? What are they wearing? Why are they running? Where are they going?

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Photo by Louis Francia on Unsplash

As a writer, you can use specific adjectives to answer some of these questions. Consider this revision: “The smiling, freckled-faced boy and the laughing, pony-tailed girl ran down the cobble-stoned street and into the refurbished building.” This revision is a little better than the original because the reader can visualize two young children playing in an old neighborhood that is apparently being restored.

Another revision might present a different picture altogether: “The scarred and tattooed boy and the crying and disheveled girl ran down the dark street and into the abandoned building.” While the first revision portrays young children having fun, the second revision presents older individuals who may be in some kind of trouble. With just a few specific adjectives, the lifeless sentence could actually become the first line of an intriguing short story.

In addition to using adjectives, you can also use specific nouns rather than general nouns to give life to a sentence. For instance, you could use real people and real places in the sentence rather than the general nouns “boy, girl, street, and building.” You might write the following: “George Clooney and Julia Roberts ran down Broadway and into the Ed Sullivan Theater.”

Verbs. Verbs are action words or words that help to make a statement. Not all verbs are equal, however; some are more powerful than others. The verb “run,” for instance, in the original sentence is an adequate, general verb, but it’s not very descriptive.

If a whole class of students were to line up on the football field, for example, and begin to run from one end zone to the other, a variety of running styles would be obvious. Some runners would “sprint,” some would “jog,” some would “lope,” some would “gallop,” and some would “fly.”

Note, too, how certain verbs can set up metaphors (direct comparisons). When you write “runners gallop,” you’re comparing those runners to horses, and when you use the verb “fly,” you’re comparing those runners to birds or airplanes. These specific verbs are much more evocative and much more interesting than the general verb “run.”

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Photo by Jorge Flores on Unsplash

Going back to the original sentence, you might say the young boy and girl “skipped down the street” to create an air of playfulness. By contrast, you might say the older boy and girl “escaped down the street” to create a more sinister air.

As a writer, you want to draw readers into your stories and essays; you don’t want to put them to sleep. So the next time you sit down to compose, instead of using general nouns, adjectives, and verbs, make sure you use strong, specific words to give life to your writing.

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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