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Specificity in Writing: Say Exactly What You Mean

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Some authors struggle with specificity because they do not want to claim an absolute. Claiming an absolute usually has to do with using “absolute terms,” such as: all, none, every, never, always, and the like. For example, “All school buses are yellow behemoths that take up every inch of the road.” This statement is false. There are school buses that are not yellow and not large. Additionally, buses cannot “take up every inch of the road” because they would crash into oncoming vehicles and they could not maneuver street corners. This language might artistically portray attributes such the physical size and color of a school bus—but grant writing is not usually the best place for such imagery.

Alternatively, absolute language creeps into writing by way of generalizations. Generalizations can come from statements that do not use absolute language such as “all” but include terms that categorize people, places, things, or actions. For example, “Today’s music is loud and obnoxious, unlike the classic sounds of Mozart.” This sentence generalizes all current music by stating, “Today’s music” which includes the more tranquil modern compositions of classical orchestras around the globe. Not all music composed in modern times is “loud and obnoxious” so using the general term “today’s music” is stating an absolute through a generalization. Besides, what do “loud” and “obnoxious” mean? Here is another, “Americans eat too much meat.” This is also false, as some Americans are vegetarian. For ways to work around such absolute language, see the handout on hedging.

Writing specifically does not have to be dry, but it needs to be clear. And a clearly written proposal is no accident. Grantmakers read many applications so they will embrace and appreciate your getting to the point. This means your proposal must specifically state your issue, and how you will employ the requested funds. Consider the following examples:

General term More specific term Very specific term

Young students

Middle school students

Students aged twelve to fifteen

Night time

After 7 PM

Between 7PM and 10PM central time


Corn farmers

Corn farmers with less than 50 square acres of farm land

Math teachers

Algebra teachers

High school algebra teachers with more than 15 years of teaching experience

Marital status


Never been married

Consider the following question: “How will you use the purchased equipment?”

Non-specific response:

Nestled in the foothills of The Bright Peak Alps, the largest mountain range in the state, Bright Valley high school students will use the purchased technology to study the magnificent summer stars.

More specific response:

From May 3rd to August 5th, Bright Valley high school student-members of the solar-science club will identify and catalogue constellations with the Hyper-Scope 225.

The non-specific response offers colorful descriptions of the high school’s location and the stars, but it does not give useful information. First, summer time is not the same time of year around the globe. Second, the non-specific response does not designate which students will use the purchased equipment, nor does it mention what they will do with the equipment—which is the thrust of the original question. Specificity of the population, however, is directly related to the goals of the proposal. If there are broadly defined goals, a more general description may be appropriate for your proposal. The point here is, as an author you will have to decide the degree of specificity your proposal needs according to the grantmaker’s requirements.

As you plan your proposal, remember that it is important to:

Specifically state the desired outcomes of your project. This is can be done by stating clear, measurable objectives, for example,


Students will improve their test scores on end-of-the year tests.

More specific response:

Participating students in the after school support program will improve their beginning-of-the-year test scores by 10% on end-of-the year state-mandated tests.

The non-specific response does not give useful information on what tests will be used; “end-of-the year” is when the test will be not which test will be used (remember to avoid jargon in your application). The more specific response includes when and which test will be used, and it clarifies the ambiguous word “improve” to a quantifiable amount. Not all learning measures are captured in percentage points, but the point here is vague terms such as, “improve, raise, lower, decease” indicate a direction not an amount. How much impact will the grantmaker get for their investment? Showing this is an important consideration for grant applications that seek a change in condition.

Specifically describe the methods you will implement to attain your objectives, for example,


Students will participate in reading improvement lessons lead by volunteer teachers after school.

More specific response:

Students will learn the 25 most common prefixes and suffixes for reading vocabulary in a two hour after school support program that will be led by state-certified literacy specialists.

The non-specific response does not give specific information about what the students will learn, who will teach the students, nor does it provide a way to know if the proposal is making progress. This is an important element for some grantmakers as they may require a detailed mid-term progress report.

Specifically state how you will know whether the proposal’s objectives have been achieved.


Students will be tested every ten lessons, and will score at least 80%.

More specific response:

After completing ten lessons, students will take a timed 25-item multiple choice achievement test that has 20 items based on materials covered and 5 items to help identify areas for improvement in the next level of lessons. Successful students will answer 80% of the materials covered items correctly. Items scored incorrect will be “recycled” into the next testing session. Students who score less than 50% on the timed 25-item tests will not be allowed to proceed to the next level of lessons, and they will not be permitted to take the same level test until 5 remedial lessons have been completed.

While the non-specific response seems to give specific information, there is a disparity in the quality of information in the specific response. This whole story description available in the specific response gives the grantmakers useful information and provides evidence that your project is well planned and organized.

Additional OWL resources you may find useful:

Imprecision in writing can result from ambiguous pronouns or poorly constructed relative pronouns in non-defining clauses, so a sentence level approach to editing is also needed.