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Specificity in Poetry

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Thu Nov 02, 2017 7:52 pm
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alliyah says...

Specificity in Poetry

As someone who writes and reviews poetry on YWS, I have often received and given the feedback “be more specific” or “this is too vague”. Sometimes these labels in themselves are misleading or not specific enough.

In many ways poetry is about balance: from sentence structure, to word choice, to tone, and variation. While being vague in poetry can be confusing, being too specific can be dull as well. This article will give my own insights into why specificity is good in poetry, when poetry gets too specific, and how to add more specificity to existing poems. Many of these tips may be helpful for prose or non-fiction writing as well, but I will be writing mainly from the perspective of poetry writing.


Specificity in poetry can be an important addition to your piece, making the difference between something cliché and generic, to making a poem that gives readers something to connect to. While it's important to avoid types of unnecessary or damaging specificity, making a poem too vague will often leave it empty. Poetry is all about balance, and that same balance is essential to adding specificity. Ultimately, taking the extra effort to make a poem more specific can end up giving both the reader and the author a richer experience with the poem.
Last edited by alliyah on Thu Nov 02, 2017 7:58 pm, edited 2 times in total.
maybe i make up colors for poetic cadence, but i don't think i can ever love someone who doesn't understand that teal is a different color than dark cyan

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Thu Nov 02, 2017 7:53 pm
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alliyah says...

Why Specificity is Desirable in Poetry
Moreso than prose, poetry often asserts its message through clever word-choice, figurative language, extended metaphor, and structure rather than through plot progression and character development. That means that the specific words that one uses to write poetry (not to mention the spelling, punctuation, and capitalization choices) are significant and can really impact how a reader understands the poem. There are many reasons that could be listed for why specificity is desirable, but I'm going to stick to the three main ones.

1. Specificity adds originality
A common criticism of poetry is, "this was too cliché". A lack of genuine emotion being communicated and lack of originality are two elements that can cause writing to read as "cliché". To add originality, sometimes you can write the same basic line, but you just need to extend it, make it your own, or add specificity. For instance, there are quite a few lines that come up in different variations again and again and again in poetry - they're often obvious, overused, and they lack originality.

"I am heartbroken"
"He shined like the sun"
"My tears were like raindrops".

Now if we take something that's used and unoriginal and increase the specificity by adding concrete details or extended language, suddenly the lines become less cliché. Adding specificity helps make a metaphor or idea your own.

Examples with added specificity:
"My heart shattered like panels of glass broken by brute force"
"His pale face reflected back the glow of the summer sun"
"The thunder teased her while rain and tears poured down"

These two articles are excellent references if you'd like more information on how to keep your poetry original:
Original Poetry
Cliches in Poetry

2. Specificity creates connections
Another problem one often encounters in poetry is a lack of connection with readers. Adding specificity goes a long ways in making a poem connect to readers. Some poets might think that making a poem with a generic scene, character, story, or emotion would leave the poem more open to interpretation and thus make it easier to connect to. But leaving a poem open often ends up making it empty, which leaves little room for connection.

Everyone has felt sadness, happiness, jealousy, and excitement at some time in their lives, but that doesn't mean every poem about those basic emotions is going to leave an emotional connection. By putting in specific details along with these emotions (or characters, or scenes), the emotion becomes more grounded in reality and gives further concrete details for the reader to connect to.

Examples without specificity and with no connection:
"she was so very sad"
"his eyes were brown"
"outside I heard a storm"

Examples with added specificity:
"she was in agony"
"his eyes were chestnut"
"hail crackled against my window"

As a reader, giving specific details helps engage the poem through painting a clearer picture of the scenario. This lets the reader more easily place themselves in the scene and connect the poem to their own experiences, emotions, and the people they know. Specificity can thus improve connections for emotions, characters, scenes, and stories.

It doesn't always take a lot of work to make the descriptions more specific; sometimes it's just taking your adjectives and replacing with a more specific version of the word (like chesnut rather than brown, or dachshund rather than dog). In the third example specificity creates connection by painting a picture through the sense of sound and connecting the location of the thunder to the narrator (against my window) rather than a vague non-related location (outside).

This article has a section regarding specificity and emotion for more information:
Editing for Emotion

3. Specificity is engaging
The last reason specificity is desirable in poetry is because it often makes the writing more engaging. By using specific details, it stretches the writer to delve into the descriptions and scenes they're writing in a deeper and fuller way. This means that the poem comes alive for the reader too, because the writer has done the work of deeply thinking about their poem.

Using the last example from the point above; when we take "outside I heard a storm" and change it to "Hail crackled against my window", now, as a reader, I'm able to have a greater sense of how the character might feel. The description of "against" carries a negative connotation that may hint at the narrator's attitude towards the storm, while specifying that the storm carried "hail" indicates that this isn't just a snow storm, a thunder storm, or a rain storm, but a storm that is noisy and disruptive. By adding specific details, often there are clearer emotions, feelings, and settings that are portrayed allowing me, as a reader, to find more areas of meaning to delve into the poem and find more room for interpretation and understanding.

If we kept the generic line, "outside I heard a storm" a reader could guess what the narrator was feeling, but they would have nothing in the text to inform that guess. Generic and vague language just isn't as engaging to interpret or to try to find meaning in, because there are less concrete specific details to take hold of.

Last edited by alliyah on Thu Nov 02, 2017 7:55 pm, edited 1 time in total.
maybe i make up colors for poetic cadence, but i don't think i can ever love someone who doesn't understand that teal is a different color than dark cyan

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alliyah says...

When Poetry is Too Specific
Have you ever had a conversation with a friend, where they just told you way more than you wanted or needed? Maybe they spent an hour and a half explaining why their dog has a middle name. There's even an acronym that you can use to express this; tmi -- too much information! Not all specificity is good specificity. This is really why poetry is all about balance. While I encourage you to take a second look at your work to find areas where specificity could improve the poem, be careful not to fall into these traps of when poetry is too specific.

1. Redundancy
Redundancy is generally frustrating. It's the repetition of ideas or phrases that add no new meaning with the repetition. Don't add an extra detail if you're just repeating something that's already been said. Watch out for adjectives that are already implied within the noun (ie. wet water, cold ice, wooden branches, red ketchup).

Example of redundancy with specificity:
"I, myself, love the animal called a cat, or a kitten, or a tiger"

Take out the redundancy
"I love tigers"

This article has more in depth examples of redundancy or unneeded repetition.

2. Awkwardness
Don't make awkard moments in poems more awkward by making them more specific. Sometimes in poetry it is okay to just skim over details that would distract from the rest of the poem. If the detail you add ends up making a reader pause, laugh, and forget what they were reading, you may want to just leave the specifics out, unless that's what you're looking for a reader to feel.

Example of awkwardness with specificity:
"In the morning I brush my teeth making sure to wipe the drool as it cascades from my lips"

Take out the awkwardness
"I brush my teeth in the morning"

3. Wordiness
This is similar to eliminating redundancy, but don't confuse specificity with adding every seemingly related detail of the event. Again balance is so important. Not every line or thought needs to be explained and expanded; judge by the flow of the poem just where important points of specificity may be added, and if you can be specific in even fewer words, that's often the best option.

Example of wordiness with specificity:
"Yesterday, on the fourth of July I saw (outside an East facing window) the first storm I've seen in July. The storm had rain that I could see with my eyes when I kept them open and then when I blinked I couldn't see the rain. And I thought the thunder was extremely terrifying to me when I thought about it"

Take out the wordiness
"On July 4th, a storm raged, rain pouring,
thunder crackling, I was terrified."

4. Irrelevancy
If a detail doesn't speak to a reader's senses (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste) and has no potential for allowing the reader to make connections to the poem or understand the theme or ideas better, it may be irrelevant specificity. Details that often fall under this category are days of the week, specific numbers, random (non-symbolic) descriptions, colors, and sizes.

Example of irrelevancy with specificity:
"I ate seven crunchy orange little carrots at noon with my lunch"

Take out the irrelevancy
"For lunch I munched crunchy carrots"

Unneeded Information
Irrelevancy in poetry is similar to writing with "Info Dumps" in prose - this article gives a more in depth explanation of this concept.

Last edited by alliyah on Wed Nov 08, 2017 9:17 pm, edited 2 times in total.
maybe i make up colors for poetic cadence, but i don't think i can ever love someone who doesn't understand that teal is a different color than dark cyan

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Thu Nov 02, 2017 7:54 pm
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alliyah says...

How to Add More Specificity

1. Adjectives
Adding adjectives is sometimes the most direct way to add specificity. When looking for the right adjective to use, make sure you don't just pop in a generic one but take the time to find the one that precisely communicates what you want to say. Also be careful not to fall into the trap of making your poem a long stream of adjectives when just one would do the trick. Look for significant, original-sounding adjectives that create connections and engage the reader.

"My heart was broken" (line lacks specificity)

"My kind and fragile heart fell to the floor cracking, broken, bruised, destroyed" (More specificity, but falls into the problem of wordiness with too many adjectives)

"My fragile heart fell bruised and cracked" (insignificant or redundant adjectives eliminated, we have a more balanced, but specific line)

2. Nouns
One of my favorite ways to add specificity is to use loaded nouns. Adjectives can get wordy at some point, but if you can find a more specific noun that actually includes all the information you wanted to work in, then you can eliminate wordiness while creating a fuller picture or idea.

"I like dogs that run" (line lacks specificity)

"I love dogs that are brown and white and run with short stubby legs" (line has more specificity with adjectives, but now we have too much wordiness)

"I love corgis running with stubby legs" (less wordiness and details are now implied with the noun "corgis")

3. Verbs
Making your verbs count is another way to increase the specificity of your writing.

Megrim has written a fantastic article on how to utilize verbs as a way to add more interesting specific information to prose and much of this information can be utilized in poetry as well.
Verbs Are The New Adjectives

4. Metaphors & Similes
An excellent way to add specificity is to substitute what you're saying with a metaphor or simile. This is a perfect example of balancing in poetry because it doesn't spell out exactly what you're saying, yet it gives the reader material to chew on, to contemplate and connect with. In this way, using metaphors and similes balances out the need for specificity and originality with the need to leave some details and connections to the reader's imagination.

"I no longer like you" (line lacks specificity, may be difficult for reader to connect with)

"We stopped talking to each other" (line getting more specific, but feels a bit too direct)

"Our words were lost, the bridge between us broken" (with use of metaphor, and maybe some explanation in following lines we have a richer understanding of the situation)

5. Digging Deeper, Filling in the Details
Sometimes to add specificity to a line you just need to ask yourself questions about it. What does this mean? Why is it important? What does this look, feel, taste, sound like? Remember that concrete details are often going to go further than abstract details when painting a picture.

maybe i make up colors for poetic cadence, but i don't think i can ever love someone who doesn't understand that teal is a different color than dark cyan

We think in generalities, but we live in details.
— Alfred North Whitehead