Tips for Writers: On Universality

700-045771There may be writers who want to alienate their readers. (I can’t think of any, off-hand, perhaps because they’ve been so successful in achieving their goal.) But the rest of us want to draw our readers in. We want them to identify with the themes and heroes we create. In other words, we strive for universality. But oddly enough, our means of accomplishing this may be the very thing that defeats our purpose.

Early in my writing career, I wrote a film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, a novel set in late 19th and early 20th century China. I was concerned that western audiences would be unable to relate to an obscure Asian farmer’s rise from crushing poverty to profligate wealth. Consequently, I downplayed the more “foreign” elements of the story. Result? The first draft fell as flat as an undercooked mooncake.

So I rewrote it, folding back in details I’d previously omitted: enigmatic local gods, foil papers and lucky colors, opium dens and prostitution-serving “tea houses.” To my surprise, the first studio exec who read it remarked how “universal” the story was. That was when I first came to understand the principal of:

The universal in the specific.

Readers are more interested in truth than familiarity. And to be true, writers must be authentic—fearlessly so. That is both the challenge and glory of writing. Audiences seek the universal, yes. But universality isn’t found in familiarity, it’s found in specificity. The reader seeks a vicarious experience, seeks to live in someone else’s skin for awhile. And a vicarious experience can only be created through the rich details of time, place, and character. If you’re not being specific, you’re being nothing at all.

Experiencing a life that’s different from our own is, ironically, the best way to discover how much we are alike. True stories, both real and fictional (all good fiction is true), provide the puzzle pieces that complete our picture of humanity. They help us to say, “So this is what we are.”

So don’t strive to be universal. Strive to be true. Strive to be authentic. Fearlessly inhabit the local, the unique, the specific. And you will discover that you have opened the door to…

The universal.   

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
This entry was posted in Culture, Memoir, Story Power, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Tips for Writers: On Universality

  1. Cool example, excellent guidance. I was deeply impressed with The Good Earth. Such a profound warning. The rich eventually do themselves in…but in a world well-stocked with personal and mass weaponry, the process of doing themselves in may well do us all in. Let’s hope a few wiggle through the eye of the needle…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for the tip, Mitch. I am in the process of applying for a writing class at one of our universities and will remember your advice. I rally enjoy your posts because I learn so much from them. Hmm; maybe I will read all your posts and cancel the writing class!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. @vapor_sage says:

    Thanks, Mitch
    That will help

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent advice Mitch. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. smzang says:


    You are an icon in my book. What you say is a hundred percent true,
    and then there is that butt (‘scuse me, I might mean but).

    Any (good) thing taken too far can become toxic. I have seen the ‘search
    for truth, locality and specificity’ turn into an excuse to employ shock
    tactics that turn a promising piece of work into a trashy nickel novel
    (okay, so it’s really a dime novel or more like a five ninety-eight novel.
    So much for truth.)

    I think what we have to ask, as we create our masterpieces, is exactly
    what you suggest, “Is this what we are?” or maybe even a judicious “is this
    necessary to the life of the story?”


    Liked by 1 person

    • mitchteemley says:

      Indeed. You make a very good point with that last question in particular, Sarah. Asking oneself often, “Is this necessary?” is an important practice in writing (and editing). Although, in this case, I think you may be alluding to the inclusion of unnecessarily graphic or gratuitous passages, the practice is advisable for many reasons.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ron Whited says:

    Thanks Mitch. As someone who believes there is a book hidden within,I THINK I get what you’re saying.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. There’s so much wisdom in this post, Mitch. “Universality isn’t found in familiarity, it’s found in specificity” … and “fearlessly inhabit” your writing. I think these are truths every writer needs to discover in order to create works that are genuine and that touch the lives and hearts of readers. I think it’s true of nonfiction writers as well as fiction writers. Great food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. revruss1220 says:

    Great advice! Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dani Ta says:

    They are helpful for me. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dymoon says:

    interesting the writings of Pearl S Buck were so “reflections” of “home” for me

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Rhonda says:

    Great post. I especially appreciate your comment about specificity.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Candy L says:

    Very interesting and helpful tips. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. toutparmoi says:

    So well said! Though nowadays there seems to be an ever-increasing trend to dumb things down by over-familiarisation because otherwise the audience “won’t get it”.

    Liked by 2 people

    • mitchteemley says:

      There does indeed. I particularly dislike the television trend of having characters in historical periods speak like 21st century westerners (the trend is there in fiction, as well).

      Liked by 1 person

      • mitchteemley says:

        And, I might add, I would miss so much in reading your Earl of Southampton’s Cat, if you were to do away with all those delightful Elizabethanisms!


      • toutparmoi says:

        Language is always a challenge for writers of historical dialogue. If people didn’t sound strange to each other, then they shouldn’t sound strange to us – but on the other hand, they shouldn’t sound like they just strolled out of Walmart, either!

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Ann Coleman says:

    I completely agree! When I first started writing, I tried so hard to make sure that I wrote about things that others could relate to, and my stories fell flat. It wasn’t until I found the courage to tell my own truth that I began to write stories others could actually relate to. The universality that we aspire to really does come from telling our own stories….

    Liked by 1 person

  15. emily says:

    This is an amazing writing tip, thank you!!

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Gritty Momma says:

    Love how you’ve said this! I beat the specificity drum to death when I was teaching writing, for these very reasons. You articulate it in a fresh, new way for me. Much obliged. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  17. So true, Mitch! Great advice!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. gpavants says:

    Hi Mitch,

    Great advice. Be real to your characters and how people can connect with them. Hope you have characters that live out the Gospel in tennis shoes, jeans, and t-shirt.

    Thank you,


    Liked by 1 person

  19. so true, thank you for sharing, I always think of the abused and do my best to direct and help them. Love and light my friend

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Fantastic advice and clear example!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. librepaley8 says:

    ‘More interested in truth than familiarity’, useful advice, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Book 'Being and Absolutism' says:

    That is so useful Mitch, I agree being true is so important.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Thanks for the lesson. I will be checking out this blog OFTEN

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Pingback: Tips for Writers: On Universality — Mitch Teemley – Kay's Heart

  25. Pingback: Tips for Writers: On Universality — Mitch Teemley – solacewrites

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