Specific = Fresh

In the business writing classes I lead, attendees often talk about wanting to use fresh language. They are looking for new, fresh words to communicate their ideas.

Freshness is an apt goal. We can’t engage readers with stale writing. But we don’t have to use fresh words. Many of the old words we use every day can create vivid images that draw in readers. The secret is that we do this:

Be specific.

For example, at the beginning of classes, I often ask attendees to tell us something they enjoy in life. Most people mention things like this: my children, hiking, spending time outside, reading, travel. To get more of a sense of them, I might ask the reader "What do you like to read?" and the traveler "Where did you go on your last trip?" If I learn that individuals read biographies or last traveled to New Zealand, I become more engaged with them than if they like simply reading and travel. Likewise, when I learn their children are ages 2 months and 3 years, I know something I could not get from the general "I enjoy my children."

Last week when I asked what people enjoy in life, a woman said she enjoyed occasionally getting a good night’s sleep and going out wearing clothes that don’t have baby spit-up on them.

Bingo! Those words told me she has an infant, and her life is upside-down from what it was before the baby’s birth. She remembers the good old days of being able to sleep through the night and going out dressed immaculately. At least that is what I believe after hearing her brief introduction.

There’s nothing fresh about the words she used, except maybe "baby spit-up." But she shared something specific that painted a picture. She got my attention and my empathy. The stranger became familiar.

When you are trying to engage readers, think specific. Instead of describing the retreat as "rewarding," mention a specific reward. Rather than writing that the new system is "efficient," mention something users can do easily with the system that they couldn’t do before. Don’t say you are good at thinking on your feet–give an example that illustrates that trait.

I am a fan of fresh language. But to me, a specific image offers as much freshness as two words combined in a surprising way.

Don’t just tell me something. Tell me something specific. To me, it will be fresh.

Syntax Training