Let’s clarify what we mean by “specificity.” Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab provides the following examples of generic versus specific writing:
|General term||More specific term||Very specific term|
|Young students||Middle school students||Students 12 to 15|
|Night time||After 7 PM||Between 7PM and 10PM central time|
|Math teachers||Algebra teachers||High school algebra teachers with more than 15 years of experience|
In business writing, a lack of specificity leaves the author’s intent open to interpretation, which creates uncertainty and risk. You might not get what you want if your writing is imprecise.
For example, if you’re writing a job description for a high school algebra teacher with more than 15 years of experience, but you reduce your description to “math teacher,” you’ll get applications from people unqualified for the role. Conversely, if you’re looking for a calculus teacher, you might not get a single relevant application, because that audience might expect to be addressed directly and specifically. They might assume “math teacher” means grade school teacher.
Or, if you send an email announcement to let your customers know that your services will be temporarily offline for maintenance between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. CST, but you write only “night time” or even “after 7 p.m.,” you’ve failed to give them sufficient information to plan around the maintenance. As a result, you’ll likely end up fielding customer complaints.
Specificity of words is only the start. As editor Shawn Coyne points out, writers must also contend with “specificity of ideas.”
You see a lack of “specificity of ideas” in business jargon and corporate-speak, where readers have only a vague sense of what the author actually means. “Jargon masks real meaning,” Jennifer Chatman, management professor at the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, tells Forbes. “People use it as a substitute for thinking hard and clearly about their goals and the direction that they want to give others.”
In extreme cases, a lack of specific details in writing can make you sound superficial, duplicitous, or evasive. An email to employees about an upcoming merger, for example, can easily fuel fears and reduce employee morale if the message is imprecise enough to sound like double-talk.
Instead, stick to facts with specific writing and leave off any breathless superlatives. Straightforward and plain-spoken business writing might not be splashy, but it can serve its function of educating and persuading much more effectively than generic words and vague statements.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.