Which word grabs your attention—car or Corvette? Each of these words is a noun. Each falls into the same category, in this case, vehicle. Yet you were drawn to one over the other.
Most likely, Corvette caught your attention. Unlike the word car, you could see an image of the Corvette in your mind’s eye. Possibly you ran your hands along its smooth finish, slid into the driver’s seat, turned the ignition key and heard the engine purr when you pressed the accelerator. You saw, felt and heard all of that just by reading one word—Corvette.
In comparison, the word car probably created a gray image with little definition. Emotional responses were few or none.
Why the difference? Car is a general noun. Corvette is a specific noun. While a general noun represents a broad category of persons, places or things, a specific noun represents one item within a category. The more details used to describe a noun, the easier it is to envision it—and to experience it.
Here are a few general nouns followed by specific nouns in the same category.
Nation: England, India, Namibia
Dog: poodle, Labrador, Chihuahua
Child: toddler, teenager, infant
Building: barn, skyscraper, chalet
Dinner: lasagna, ribs, trout
Each of these specific nouns creates a detailed image that the reader can see and possibly hear, smell, feel or taste. They also evoke memories, dreams and emotions. When you use them, you enrich your writing and the reader’s experience.
Here are some simple steps to help you improve your writing with specific nouns.
1. Scan through your draft and circle each noun (person, place or thing).
2. Read your draft out loud and when you come to a noun, envision the image you intended.
3. Ask yourself, does this noun show what I, the writer, see in my mind’s eye?
4. If it does, great. If not, ask yourself, what nouns could I use? Make a list.
5. Say each of the nouns in your list out loud. Which one best describes what you see in your mind’s eye?
6. When you have a selected a specific noun, read the sentence using it and ask yourself, is this the best noun I can choose?
7. Continue this process until you feel comfortable with your choice.
Remember, the goal is to both provide the reader a rewarding experience and get your writing out into the world. Do this exercise purposefully, but avoid falling into the perfection trap. When you sense you have chosen the best specific noun at this time, stop doing the exercise.
The act of doing this simple exercise helps you clarify what you want the reader to experience and which specific nouns describe it effectively. As your writing becomes more descriptive, it becomes more engaging and informative. Both you and the reader benefit!