How I Use Psychology to Improve My Writing

Alright, grab a slice of pizza and get ready to take some notes.

It’s time for a psych lesson from your writing pal, Tory.

One beginner mistake I see in a lot of writing is a lack of specificity.

However, the advice to “be more specific” is kind of broad and hard to explain to some people. Sometimes people just can’t think of a better word to substitute or an example to fill in the weaker parts.

And that’s where psychology comes in.

So, let’s explore the world of cognitive linguistics to learn about the different levels of categorization and, more importantly, how you can apply this idea to your own writing process.

What are Levels of Categorization?

When categorizing objects and concepts we are actually using a series of organizational systems and structures in our minds (called taxonomies) without even realizing it. These taxonomies can then be broken down into 3 defined levels of abstraction.

For example, in most of our languages, there are three Levels of Categorization: superordinate (a broad high-level), basic (a common mid-level), and subordinate (a specific low-level).

And so, the 3 levels of categorization look like this:

  • Superordinate: A Plant
  • Basic: A Flower
  • Subordinate: A Pink Cactus
Image by Author

One quirky thing about these levels is that children actually develop them over time. And early on, they use language in ways most of us don’t — which is also why they are such good writers.

If I ask a kid to define an abstract concept like love. They might say “when my mom hugs me” or “a double chocolate cookie with extra chips.” Whereas, if I ask an adult, they might literally define it or give me a typical example like getting married.

A kid doesn’t fully understand the levels of categorization yet, so they think of things across all 3 levels. Whereas the rest of us generally think of something at the basic level first. You’ve likely even seen it in action when a child calls your friend’s pet cat a dog because they haven’t encountered a cat before.

So, how does this relate to writing?

Well, when we read good writing, one of the things that makes it compelling is that specificity.

When I started writing poetry as a teenager, I often littered my poetry with specific examples and that was what made it so much more potent.

Those fine details and tangible examples are far more interesting and make your writing stronger.

“Good writing is remembering detail. Most people want to forget. Don’t forget things that were painful or embarrassing or silly. Turn them into a story that tells the truth.” ~ Paula Danziger

Let’s put it into action!

Say you’re writing a website, blog, or newsletter for an Italian restaurant that sells the best pizza in town. At least that’s what you want to convey in your copy to make it appealing.

What sounds better, good food (super), a pizza (basic), or a Woodfired Neopolitan pizza (sub)?

I think we both know the answer. And while being specific isn’t always the best choice in your copywriting (or any writing) — it’s a much better starting point. You can always simplify it if you need to.

All too often when I’m editing writing for my clients, I see writers being too vague or too broad. Then, to improve it, I have to go in and get more specific for them. So, if you can master that you’re better than most writers.

Thanks for reading! 🙂



About the Author

Victoria Fraser is a freelance writer from Vancouver, Canada who works with clients doing copywriting & content marketing. You can learn more at her website to work with her or say hello on Twitter!

Published by Victoria A. Fraser

Freelance writer, podcast producer, and comic artist.

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