Be specific. It’s the best way to retain readers’ interest

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People think profound advice demands sweeping generalizations.

“Think before speaking.” “Build habits systematically.” “Avoid passive voice.”

These are fine. But generalizations piled upon generalizations rapidly become tedious. Specifics are what keep your reader reading and relating. So be specific.

People think it’s mundane to cite details. The opposite is true: the more grounded your prose is, the more readers will relate to it.

6 ways to use specifics to keep readers believing

Here are six types of specifics that can make your advice more believable.

1 Examples

Don’t just talk about what to do, show us how it works. For example:

Rewrite passive voice sentences to make the actor into the subject. Don’t write “Strategic plans are created.” Write “The company’s senior strategists must create strategic plans.”

2 Stories

Give readers real examples of what actual people or companies are doing. Tell a story and they’ll believe you.

Forrester Research editors systematically remove passive voice from the company’s research reports. Companies value the resulting direct advice, paying tens of thousands of dollars for research subscriptions.

3 Statistics

Numbers create belief and ground readers in truth.

According to the 2016 bernoff.com survey of business writers, 25% of writers feel passive voice makes their writing significantly less effective.

4 Instructions

Tell people what to do about your insights, with step-by-step instructions.

Here’s how to identify passive voice.

  1. Find verbs in past tense. For example, “The embezzlement was investigated.”
  2. Look for a form of “to be” as a helping verb. “The embezzlement was investigated.”
  3. Check that the subject of the sentencer was not the actor. In “The embezzlement was investigated,” “embezzlement” isn’t the actor.

Alternatively, use the zombies test. If the sentence makes sense when you put “by zombies” after the verb, it’s passive.

“The embezzlement was investigated by zombies.” Yup, makes sense.

5 Quotes

Cite experts.

Steven Pinker describes a carbon monoxide detector with the warning “Infants, children, older adults, and people with health conditions are more easily affected by Carbon Monoxide.” “It’s in the third person, and filled with . . . passives like are more easily affected,” he writes. “People can read it and not get the feeling that anything terrible will happen.”

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker, p. 54.

6 Personal experience

Tell us about your own experience with the principle you are describing.

I once edited a book in which nearly every sentence seemed to be in the passive voice. It was full of detailed and expert advice, but was very hard to struggle through. Identifying and rewriting all those sentences was a lot of work, but it was worth it: the edited manuscript became clear, direct, and powerful.

Get in the habit of citing specifics

Every unsupported generalization makes your reader doubt you. Examples, stories, and personal experience don’t necessarily constitute proof, but they add credibility. You can combine them to become even more convincing.

Specifics like this encourage the reader to think, “I understand this, I believe this, I can do this.” That’s what makes that reader ready to follow your advice — and to keep reading.

2 responses to “Be specific. It’s the best way to retain readers’ interest

  1. Adding the alternative for #4 to our style guide!

    “Alternatively, use the zombies test. If the sentence makes sense when you put ‘by zombies’ after the verb, it’s passive.”

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