Thursday, March 12, 2015

The power of specificity (3) – an unspecified disaster

In previous posts (here and here) on the power of specificity, I’ve shown you samples of specificity and samples of vagueness.

Today I point you to another example of vagueness. It is a 565-word comment on an article. The article is titled “Why do expats go home? Why do they seek new overseas ‘havens’? Interviews with departing and relocating expats reveal the reasons.”

The author of the comment explains that he moved to Argentina ten years ago, that he had difficulty fitting in, and that he overcame his difficulty by making friends with some “bi-lingual and bi-cultural Argentines” who helped him understand the local culture and politics.

All well and good. The reader now expects the author to recommend that everyone expatriating to Argentina likewise find and make such friends, so as to enjoy a more serene and comfortable life there. And perhaps the author will provide a few examples of situations in which the friends and the understanding were helpful, and how.

But instead of doing those reasonable things, the author suddenly darkens the picture. He claims:

That it is “absolutely important” that the reader understand the local culture and government;

That “not understanding the culture, the laws, or the politics, can be an absolute disaster.”

After using such an extreme adverb (absolutely) and adjective (absolute), the author owes the reader some specificity. However, he gives none.

The reader wonders: “Is the government really that bad, or is this fellow just a blowhard? Will the cops kidnap and kill me, or just shake me down for a bribe now and then?”

Meanwhile, the author frivolously concludes his essay with this advice: “Keep your eyes and ears open.” This ancient cliche offers no specificity.

The Takeaway: If your writing is vague, you won’t make it specific just by adding absolutely, one of the most overused and abused adverbs in the English language, or other histrionic words. It will only make the reader more aware of how vague your writing is. Instead, just say what you mean, in specific, non-histrionic language. And give examples.

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