Monday, November 21, 2011

The power of specificity (1) -- David Brooks

As we mention often on this blog, one way to improve your writing is to keep reading examples of good writing. David Brooks (pictured), a columnist for The New York Times, recently provided a superb example of a hard-hitting essay. In this piece, he satirizes Americans’ beliefs about inequality.

I especially call your attention to one characteristic of the piece: specificity. Instead of using a lot of generalities, he relentlessly pounds away with example after example.

He organizes the examples into pairs. For instance,

“Fitness inequality is acceptable. It is perfectly fine to wear tight workout sweats to show the world that pilates [sic] have [sic] given you buns of steel. These sorts of displays are welcomed as evidence of your commendable self-discipline and reproductive merit.

“Moral fitness inequality is unacceptable. It is out of bounds to boast of your superior chastity, integrity, honor or honesty. Instead, one must respect the fact that we are all morally equal, though our behavior and ethical tastes may differ.”

He goes on: Acceptable, unacceptable. Acceptable, unacceptable. Soon the reader recognizes that Americans are, to put it kindly, inconsistent on inequality.

This is a writing technique worth emulating.

The Takeaway: If you want to be persuasive when arguing or debating a point, use specificity. A sustained barrage of specific examples in plain language can be more powerful than the most beautifully worded generalities.

See disclaimer.

Update, Wednesday, November 30, 2011: Prompted by a comment from Anonymous, I changed liberals to Americans. Thank you, Anonymous.

1 comment:

  1. What on earth does this have to do with liberals being deranged? Brooks, though a conservative, is talking about American culture at large. Conservatives are just as likely to see academic inequality as acceptable, likewise sports, income, and technological inequality. This holds for many (but not all) the categories discussed.