Specificity is the Gateway to Universality

Recently, someone asked me how I keep content such as articles, case studies, and blogs interesting, particularly if I’ve written on the topic a bajillion times. My response was, “The human element.” People want to read about themselves. We are endlessly fascinated by the behaviors of others, either because they mimic our own or are drastically different. It’s that human quirkiness that perpetually snags our attention.

A literary agent expressed this during a writer’s conference I went to in October when he said, “Specificity is the gateway to universality.” It may seem counterintuitive, but the more specific you are, the more relatable whatever it is you’re writing.  Instead of trying to make your character like everyone else, instead of being as general as possible, do the opposite. It turns out when you write about someone whose eye twitches when they’re stressed, or leaves dirty dishes in the sink for days, you’re broadening the appeal of your character. There’s a universality because while your eye may not twitch when you’re stressed, maybe your mouth does, or your finger.

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A twitching eye is a memorable detail. Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash

Conversely, with the detail about the dishes, maybe you wash your dishes as soon as you’re finished and you’re repulsed by people who let them sit a while. That emotional reaction is a hook that keeps you engaged because you’re either nodding your head in agreement or exclaiming, “How could you do that?!?”

The literary agent said, “Specificity is the gateway to universality,” in reference to characters in a novel, but the principle also applies to case studies, blogs, and articles. If I’m writing about something as mundane as a pencil, which we’ve all used at some point in our lives, you don’t care that much the pencil sparkles. Glitter is fun and all, the sparkles may tip you over the edge in terms of buying the pencil, but you’re not going to read an entire blog about it. However, if I said there are 50 ways to use a pencil that don’t involve writing, and then interviewed people who used pencils as hair accessories, art pieces, to conduct electricity, and more, that’s interesting.

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Now you’re thinking about all the uses for pencils, aren’t you? Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

In my work as a ghostwriter for therapists, I use this principle of specificity frequently and ask my clients for examples. Out of the 50 million articles on trauma, what makes theirs stand out? Unless they’re presenting cutting-edge research, it will be the anecdotes. It will be the story of how Jane Doe was scared to leave her house because the world felt too threatening and now she travels by herself to far-flung lands. That’s a story.

Because I have training as a journalist, and still work as a freelance journalist in Oakland, CA, I’m well aware of what makes content interesting. I think about this all the time. In journalism, there’s a word for it: newsworthiness. And just because I’m not writing for the New York Times and instead writing for someone’s blog, doesn’t mean those same rules don’t apply. They do. Specificity is the gateway to universality no matter whether it’s ghostwriting for a therapist or content writing for a small business.

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Specificity acts as a point of focus. Photo by Sam Moqadam on Unsplash

How has XYZ affected you or someone you know? How is life different for you because of XYZ? It’s those details that make all the difference.

If you’d like help drawing out those details, reach out to me. I’ve been focusing on details since the 2nd grade when I told my teacher, Mrs. Briggs, that her shoes sounded like they said “apple” every time she took a step. Even if that doesn’t make sense to you, it sure caught your attention, didn’t it?


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