On Generalities

Sometimes we can get away with talking in generalities: for the most part, winter is a cold season, the night sky is dark, and driving from Missouri to Maryland is always going to take longer than you have the patience to stomach. These generalities, unfortunately, are exceptions to the rule. Generalized information frustrates people. We can’t make informed decisions without specifics. We can’t even enjoy ourselves without specifics.

Which would you rather eat? “Chocolate,” “85% Dark”, or “Milk Chocolate”? My money’s on the milk chocolate, but I doubt anyone can pick run-of-the-mill “chocolate” with an honest face and a clean conscience. And yet, strangely, sometimes we try to get by with as little informtaion as possible. I’m guilty of this on occasion.

For example, upon meeting an acquaintance on the street:

“How are you today?”

“Fine. You?”

Sure, sure, it’s the conversational equivalent of booting up your laptop, but “fine” could mean any number of actual answers, from “not dead” to “having the best day this week so far, unless something comes along to mess it all up”. The relationship is made in when and how we communicate the specifics.

If you called the auto mechanic to describe a problem with your vehicle, you wouldn’t get very far with “It’s not working correctly.” A good service technician will know how to drill down with questions to get to the heart of the problem. Does it start? Is it making any strange noises? Does anything change when you accelerate? Are the symptoms temporary or prolonged?

We jump-start our communication when we provide this information without forcing these drill-down questions. But, sometimes we need a little help. We need some direction from the people who know what they’re talking about.

So what does any of this have to do with writing? The implications here are twofold:

A) In creating description, exposition, and backstory, the goal is to show, not tell, and be specific. The reader wants to feel the sweat rolling down their faces in the heat of a steamy Alabama bayou afternoon, not hear that “It was hot outside.” The details do the heavy lifting here.

B) When working with beta readers, generalities are the least useful pieces of feedback, with “I liked it” being the worst. “I didn’t like it” probably comes in a close second place. But new beta readers (and even some seasoned ones) can be better served with questions or guidelines that help elucidate what kind of feedback you’re after.

One of my betas recently told me he didn’t like a minor character of mine; I assumed it was because I’d written the character poorly. But when we got down to it, after a little prodding, I discovered the real answer was due to a personality clash – which indicates (at least to me) that I did at least a decent job bringing that character to life.

I’ve taken to providing my betas a list of specific, leading questions to either answer or at least keep in mind while they read. I still welcome general feedback, but anytime a beta can dive into specifics – even outside of my survey – about what they loved and hated, they prove their invaluable worth.

It’s all about the specifics. Generally speaking.