“You’ve got a Chevrolet as old as her.” On concrete specifics.

The Turnpike Troubadours, a (possibly defunct?) country band, have a song called “Unrung” in which the narrator admonishes an older friend about a relationship with a much younger woman. The song begins,

I could tell you she’s a bad idea,
For all the good it would do.
You’ve got a Chevrolet as old as her–
Hell, you bought it new.

I want to look at those four lines for a minute in order to point out a few things about the use of concrete specifics, both in storytelling and in persuasive writing.

Good persuasive writing typically moves from claims (or opinions) to facts. It is helpful to know the difference, especially in a cultural climate that seems to be post-factual. Some things actually are verifiable facts whether you like them or not–also, whether you wish to believe them or not. Not everything is an opinion. It seems bizarre to be living in a world where one has to point these things out, but there we are.

Read More

Notes for Writers of Alma Maters

I graduated from Warner Robins High School (Go Demons!). Our alma mater probably looked a lot like your alma mater:
 On the city’s eastern border,
Led by God’s great hand,
Proudly stands our alma mater,
Dearest in the land.
We will ever sing thee praises,
Striving without fail.
Here’s to thee, our alma mater–
Robins High all hail!

 I’ve always felt that Warner Robins High School, the institution of learning where I first encountered Paradise Lost, The Canterbury Tales, and polynomials, deserved a better alma mater–though I suspect it’s close to the median for this sort of thing. Literary standards for alma maters are pretty low.

Read More

On Love Letters: Start With Memory, Not Emotion

In August of 1988 I went to a watermelon social on the back porch of Furman University’s dining hall. I was more or less minding my own business when across the way I saw a girl who was so beautiful I could hardly believe she existed in the same world where I lived and moved and had my being. I don’t even know how to talk about this without sounding like the worst sort of Hallmark card, so I’ll spare you.

I didn’t speak to the aforementioned girl at the watermelon social, but I spoke to her eventually, and eventually we got married and raised six children together. That face that was such a marvel to me in August of 1988 is now more familiar to me than my own face.

But every now and then, when we arrive separately at a party or a school event or church, I’ll catch a glimpse of my wife from across the room, and I’m astonished all over again. I’m that nineteen-year-old boy, and she’s that eighteen-year-old girl. The amazement that such a creature exists at all is compounded by the amazement that she’s the most familiar thing in the world to me.

Read More

Liars, Con-Men, and Writers: On Specificity and Believability

There’s a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 in which Falstaff explains why he and three of his fellows ran away from a fight. They were ambushed, he tells Prince Hal, by a hundred armed men. His account is harrowing:

                 I am eight times thrust through the
doublet, four through the hose; my buckler cut
through and through; my sword hacked like a
hand-saw…

Notice the specificity of the detail he offers. Falstaff invites his listener into the scene, makes his story believable by providing these details that add texture. Eight sword-thrusts through his doublet and four through his hose! Those telling details speak not only of the violence of the encounter, but also the nearness of the danger.

Read More

Five Lessons on Writing from Jerry Seinfeld

This NY Times video of Jerry Seinfeld explaining his joke-writing process has been floating around the Internet for years, so you may have seen it already. But it’s well worth revisiting, especially on Fat Tuesday, a day devoted to jollity.

Watching this (for the umpteenth time), I’m struck by how many of Seinfeld’s lessons for joke-writing apply to writing of all kinds. Here are a few: 

Read More

Love Letters–Valentine’s Day 2019

When I was a much younger man, I found myself in the greeting card section of some store or other while my young bride was shopping. To pass the time, I started reading the greeting cards–first the funny ones, then the lovey-dovey ones. And what I saw among the lovey-dovey ones shocked and mortified me: Every idea or feeling expressed in every one of those cards was an idea or feeling that I had, at one time or another, considered putting into a poem or letter to my wife.

Somehow we get it in our heads that our emotions are unique. It was a blow to my ego to stand there in the greeting card aisle and realize that all those highly refined feelings I felt about my wife had been felt before–and by enough people that those feelings could become the basis of a mass-market product! 

Read More

Write Better Description

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted my first webinar, on writing vivid description. I wanted to share an example from that webinar with those of you who weren’t there.

I try not to teach from negative example, but this one sentence manages to violate all four of my guidelines for good description, so I thought you would find it instructive. Allow me to mention that this sentence was written by a person who actually writes quite well. We all have our slip-ups; and as you are about to see, this sentence is only a slip-up, not a spectacularly bad piece of writing. Here it is:

Humble little town homes sat situated above unique cafes on these quaint roads, right where renowned scholars and thinkers and poets had once walked.

See? This isn’t flagrant. It’s the kind of writing you see all the time, and under normal circumstances you might pass right by it and not think about it one way or another. And that’s part of the problem—the reader wouldn’t think about this description one way or another, or envision anything either.

Read More
Main Menu