What Is a Non-Specific Word Choice? (SOLVED With Examples)

If you’ve been writing for any length of time at all, you know that word choice is crucial. I’ve written professionally for 15 years and word choice still sometimes stumps me.

What is a non-specific word choice?

A non-specific word choice is a word choice that is vague and does not convey a sense of the specific details. Non-specific word choices include generic words like “thing,” “stuff,” “them,” or “that.”

The best way to learn about non-specific word choice is to see actual examples. That’s why I’ve included a table of clear examples below so that you can understand without any confusion.

Keep reading to learn when and how to use non-specific word choice, and seven simple ways to fix non-specific word choice in your writing.

My favorite tool for quickly improving, rephrasing, simplifying, or expanding my writing is by far the Jasper AI Writer (formerly known as Jarvis).

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Examples of Non-Specific Word Choice

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Image by author via Canva—What is a non-specific word choice?

I thought it might be helpful to include a table of examples of non-specific word choices. I’ll bold the non-specific word choice so they stand out.

Study this table so that you absorb all the variations.

By doing so, you’ll be able to identify non-specific word choices in your writing—whether in essays, emails, reports, papers, articles, or stories.

Example SentenceNon-Specific Word
I want that.That
She went to the place.Place
A person called me.Person
Meet me at the location.Location
This happened long ago.This
Everyone came to the party.Everyone
He walked the animal.Animal
You should go to the event.Event
The vehicle drove away.Vehicle
I’ll be in the room.Room
It has become very clear that…It
There are several reasons to believe.Reasons
The evidence is clear.Evidence
We can rely on the results.Results
The presentation was informative.Presentation
He is able to attend the meetings.Meetings
The project is developing smoothly.Project
She needs support from people at work.People
Their team will be doing an important job.Job
Everybody participated and shared their ideas and knowledge.Everybody
What is a non-specific word choice?

Please note that these sentences include non-specific words mostly because they exist in isolation.

Yes, you can improve most of the sentences with a bit more specifics, however, some of the sentences might work in the context of a larger, more specific paragraph offering the reader details.

How To Easily Spot a Non-Specific Word Choice

The easiest way to spot a non-specific word choice is to ask a simple question of all of your sentences.

The simple question is, “What detail is missing?”

Here are other variations of this question you might want to use:

  • Who exactly?
  • Where exactly?
  • When exactly?
  • What exactly?

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you write the sentence, “I can’t stand the person!” Since this sentence is about a person, you can ask, “Who exactly?” As in, “Who exactly can’t you stand?”

The identity of the person in the sentence is not identified, so someone eavesdropping on the conversation would not understand your meaning. To fix this sentence, you could change it to read, “I can’t stand Chad!”

Now, anyone listening knows you don’t like Chad, specifically. They might know Chad, but you are still writing a clear and defined sentence.

Is Non-Specific Word Choice Bad?

By now, you might be wondering if using non-specific word choice is always bad. The answer is no.

There are times to use non-specific words and times you probably want to avoid vague or unclear words. It really depends on the context. In school, teachers often focus on writing more specific sentences.

That’s why many of us mistakenly believe specific is always better.

It’s also true that writing with more detail is often the correct choice. Most of the time, adding specific information to clarify your meaning improves your writing.

However, this is not always the case, every time.

Since I want you to master non-specific word choice, we’re going to look at when to use it to maximize your writing.

When To Use Non-Specific Word Choice? (9 Best Times)

There are writing circumstances where non-specific word choice is preferred over specific word choice.

Here’s a quick list of some of these circumstances:

  • When you intentionally want your meaning to be vague
  • When you want to create mystery or suspense
  • When knowing the details would ruin a later surprise
  • When the details don’t matter
  • When you have already mentioned the details earlier (so there’s no need to repeat them in every sentence)
  • When the reader (or person receiving your writing) knows what you mean
  • When you speak in slang or jargon for privacy or confedentiality
  • When a character in your story speaks in non-specific sentences (part of their characterization)
  • When a character in your story is intentionally being unclear or vague

You might notice that the common denominator in all of these reasons is intention. Only use non-specific words on purpose.

Also, check out this related video on word choice:

Video by Writing Secrets via YouTube—What is a Non-Specific Word Choice?

When To Use Specific Word Choice?

There are also times to use specific word choices. As I mentioned earlier, MOST of the time, you want to write more detailed sentences. Most writing suffers from a lack of clarity, not over-specificity.

When to use specific word choices?

I agree with Mark Twain who once famously said, “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.”

Word choice matters.

Here are seven times you should use specific word choices:

  1. When you want the best short word 
  2. When you want the most evocative word 
  3. When you want a contrasting word 
  4. When you want a concrete word 
  5. When you need the most clear word 
  6. When you prefer a lyrical word
  7. When you want to find the “right” word

We’re going to take each of these reasons one at a time.

Why you should use short words

You should use short words because short words are simple and short sentences are often more effective.

Short words also increase the speed at which you write and communicate. Short sentences force clarity. Short, simple words can improve your technical writing, help your readers understand what you’re saying, and make your writing more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Short, hyper-specific words also pack more punch.

Example: Use “fox” instead of animal and “sin” instead of wrongdoing.

Why you should use evocative words

You should use evocative words because evocative words generate emotion through meaning and association (shame, baby, funeral).

Not all writing requires emotion or visceral reactions (say, a work autoresponder email message letting your colleagues know you’re on vacation).

However, for most nontechnical writing, a little emotion can go a long way. Specific words can be very evocative.

Example: The first time I laid eyes on my baby, my soul swooned.

Why you should use contrast words

You should use contrast words because they grab attention with an odd pairing: wet sand, cold fire, beautiful atrocity.

Applying contrast words in your writing can simultaneously elevate and deepen your writing.

At its core, contrast makes for better writing by creating interest and drama by pairing seemingly incompatible ideas.

For example, the sound of shouting or the sound of silence.

Why you should use concrete words

Concrete words are visual, sensory words that lend to showing, not telling. Instead of saying something is “good” or “beautiful,” you can say that it’s “wide-eyed and bright-faced.”

Instead of telling the reader that a character is nervous, you can describe the jittery dance of his fingers.

Concrete words invoke concrete images.

Examples: Shards of glass. Shattered hoof. 

Why you should use clear words

Clear words improve understanding and convey accurate meaning. Keeping clear words in your writing will help retain the interest of readers. Clear word choice also reduces confusion and improves retention.

Example: Tuesday, November 13th, instead of “next week.” 

Why you should use lyrical words

Lyrical words flow, lilt, and play music in the “ear” of the reader. They are lyrical because they sound musical, sing-songy, or melodious. However, they tend to be more subtle. They create sounds or images in the “mind’s ear” of your readers.

Lyrical words paint pictures that stretch the imagination and imbue your writing with a sense of sound.

Example: Prose, serendipity, facetious. 

Why you should use the “right” words

The “right” words are words that best fit into the collective narrative of the sentence. When writing, you have to consider the “tone of voice” or how you want the sentence or scene to feel (to the reader).

If a sentence is light-hearted and funny, then the words used should match that tone. If a sentence is serious and strict, then the words should match that tone as well.

Always consider the context of the sentence, paragraph, page, scene, and story. As an editor once told me, “beautiful girls don’t ‘plop’.”

Final Thoughts: What Is a Non-Specific Word Choice?

The bottom line is that a non-specific word choice is unclear. It’s a barrier to good communication. You can immediately improve most sentences by making them more clear.

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