When writing about a personal experience, many express the desire to be "relatable." What does relatable mean, in writing? Does it mean an event should be loosely drawn, open to interpretation? We often think that to reach a universal audience, writing should be porous so readers can fill in the gaps.

Actually, the opposite is true. The more specific a writer is, the more concrete her memory feels to the reader. When explaining this phenomenon to my students, I use the example of describing a car. Many think that employing the generic term “car” allows a reader to create his or her own image, therefore anyone can relate. While that may be true, “car” doesn't establish a connection. This type of writing conflates generic with relatable, when the two serve very different purposes. The goal is to use specific language to create a joint, vivid picture—one that the writer and reader can share. Unfortunately, vague writing can only produce vague images.

Instead, I tell my students to describe any specific car in detail, adding key adjectives. Suddenly, "car" turns into the "red corvette with butterfly doors" or the "pick up truck with a patriotic bumper sticker" or the “old hatchback with a busted fender and duct-taped mirror." Specificity brings these images to life--everyone can picture a version of these cars they've seen in reality. Part of the craft of personal writing is figuring out which of these details help illuminate an experience and which can be tossed to the curb. You don’t want to overload your images, but you do want to handpick your adjectives to paint the picture you want.

I love the moment when a student suggests a certain type of car—maybe a dirty station wagon with “wash me” on the windshield—and the whole classroom nods in understanding and laughter, picturing their own, slightly different iteration.

Bottom line: specific, concrete descriptions put you in the driver’s seat when it comes to connecting with your readers.   

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