Writing: Generalizations and Absolutes

I have something to say about writing and game design re generalizations, hedging, and superlatives. (1) All three see common usage, but they’re hard to do well. I know. I’ve made all these mistakes at some point. I’m thankful I had mentors and colleagues to free me from these illusions. Among them is the great Kim Mohan, who probably attempted to teach me more than I could absorb.

As an editor and technical editor (also called developer in some places), I’ve seen misuse or overuse of generalizations, hedging, and superlatives a lot. Maybe rather than mis- or over-, the usage is more unintentional. I’ve also seen them in preproof passes, added during other phases of editing. Allow me to pay the help I had forward if you like.

This post doesn’t contain rules. Such prescription is folly. Everything is food for thought. If you take away one thing, I hope it’s conscientious usage. Writing is about choices—intention and refined intention. You’ll have your voice, and it’ll be different from any other. The context of your work matters, too—fiction is different from game descriptions or mechanics.

This post is full of generalizations. They have exceptions, too. And I do a little hedging. Old habits, you know? But I hope they’re useful to you in thinking about and doing writing, design, and editing. What I’m asking in this piece is that you use generalizations, hedging, and superlatives with care. Don’t allow them to run free!

Generalizations

halfdemonGeneralizations speak of common or majority traits. Frex, you write, “Half-demons have horns.” Do all half-demons have horns? Not if you accept what a generalization is. Generalizations have exceptions and read as having them. A generalization describes truth without acknowledging exceptions. Generalizations simplify statements for quick understanding. If you can imagine an exception, you’re within bounds about that exception. And the exception’s existence doesn’t make a generalization untrue.

A few folks on Twitter asked, in one way or another, if the context matters. (It does.) I mean, doesn’t “Half-demons have horns” read as an absolute? (It can.) Writing a description of a species for a game is different than depicting that species in other sorts of narratives. In game species, I’d rather see the exceptions called out. But space is a factor in books on imaginary game people. Hedging is a tool for leaving possibilities open. Still, more examples are better than hedged generalizations. The examples might be hedged, too, as in “some live this way” and “others that way” and “still others this way.” But that distinction drawing is good for comprehension.

The thing is, generalizations and hedging don’t solve a common problem for these imaginary people, and that’s homogeny. That sort of design is problematic even if the depiction isn’t. I call this problem the “flat-culture issue.” It’s a little like the one-biome planets in the Star Wars galaxy. (2) The Eberron setting, for instance, receives plaudits for sophisticated takes on cultures described too often as merely monstrous in other D&D settings. And Eberron deserves that credit. But it fails to escape the flat-culture issue with much of its reimagining.

Eberron orc
An orc of Eberron

The flat-culture issue could be a symptom of the vagueness campaign settings can require. Imprecise generalizations can lead to trouble. We see that in combining “Half-demons are people” and “Half-demons are evil.” For world-building, pairing these generalizations is a problem. The latter requires reframing and more explanation after that rework. And rework or refinement, which is careful construction, is an important part of writing.

Careful construction and exceptions build from generalization to complex understanding. Exceptions work to refine a generalization’s simplified meaning. They can seem to contradict when better defining. That’s part of the charm of additive comprehension. (See the section of that name for more.)

It has been generalized that generalizations without exceptions are rules. That claim seems incorrect. Game rules are generalizations layered with complexity built of exceptions. And built of additive comprehension. They’re still called rules to ease understanding of their context.

Flexible and adjudicated rules such as those found in tabletop roleplaying games might not be aptly called rules. Some games go so far as to call their rules guidelines. That claim might be closer to the truth. In any case, it’s a philosophical discussion for another post.

Hedging

The context of a generalization is simplifying a concept into a digestible form. But because a generalization constructed with care is still imprecise, the temptation to hedge is strong. Sometimes, hedging is okay. Like that… or saying, “Most half-demons have horns.”

weasel
These weasels are cute.

The problem with hedging is that your statements can sound wishy-washy or weaselly. And being a weasel doesn’t absolve you of explaining your exceptions. When you say, “Most half-demons have horns,” you’ve taken on the responsibility to explain that most. But you had that responsibility already if you wrote “Half-demons have horns” knowing the claim has exceptions. Then, too, the most isn’t doing any real work in conveying your intent. That’s especially so if you leave most without further explanation.

I’ve seen editors, whom I admire as members of a noble profession and on individual merit, add weasel words to passages to soften a generalization. “Generally, half-demons have horns.” This addition does nothing to aid the text. And it’s worse if the exceptions have later explanations. It sounds noncommittal. Is it true, or not?

As an editor, I cut weasel words without mercy. If the writing explains exceptions, or exceptions are known to exist, reframing is on the table. But the text doesn’t need to be cagey. If a generalization lacks exceptions, it might stand and allow for later exceptions. As I said before, a little hedging goes a long way. (3)

Attempting to write generalizations and explaining the exceptions requires more care than hedging. And text becomes clearer for the effort. Avoid weasel words. Find a way to do without them, as a writer or an editor.

Superlatives or Absolutisms

In doing without weasel words, we can also do without superlatives. “Half-demons always have horns.” With that always, you’ve committed too much. You’ve made the generalization an exceptionless rule, an absolute.

It can be worse. You can use superlatives and hedge them, leaving a lot of words doing little work. Take the following passage from the 5e Player’s Handbook:

Half-orcs most often live among orcs. Of the other races, humans are most likely to accept half-orcs, and half-orcs almost always live in human lands when not living among orc tribes. Whether proving themselves among rough barbarian tribes or scrabbling to survive in the slums of larger cities, half-orcs get by on their physical might, their endurance, and the sheer determination they inherit from their human ancestry.

These cases are bad enough. (And, again, I’ve been on the wrong side of passages like these in the past.) But in a shared universe of fiction or any game design, in creating an absolute statement, you’ve done worse. You’ve painted further creation based on your statement into a corner. Generalizations aren’t absolutes on their own, despite possible interpretations to the contrary. A generalization is useful for simplifying a complex notion. Absolutist statements are, instead, editorial nightmares.

They’re nightmares in fiction and mechanical design. That always or never is likely to be a careless addition. We can make snarky generalizations about this usage. Such sloppiness, such lack of foresight, is worthy of spite. Avoid it. A superlative creates an absolute or seems like one. And it’s unneeded. I’ve yet to see a superlative that was necessary for the fiction or mechanic in which the absolute appears. The usage only creates problems when a derived work needs or needs to be an exception. And, believe me, in year two of a game’s life, you’ll find a need for that exception. Then you or your editor will run across that superlative. Pandelerium ensues. Do you contradict the absolute claim already made? Or do you ignore it? These discussions are mind-numbing and avoidable with the care of fore-running creators.

As a superfluous weasel word weakens text, so does an unwanted superlative. Consider that need before using either. Give a superlative more scrutiny, though. It’s cutting out possibilities, while a hedging word opens them up, if in a messy way.

Generalizing People

Any of these usages requires more care when applied to imaginary people or imaginary firewhaleabhorrent behavior. It’s not enough to assume the audience members know what you mean. It’s not enough to assume they understand the exceptions.

Generalizations about imaginary people are among the dangerous or faulty ones. So are those supporting terrible behavior in non-villains. Everyone knows slavery is evil, right? We don’t need to say the slavers are baddies, right? Wrong. Say what you mean.

Mind the gaps, those spaces you leave in your fiction or design, that people fill with their assumptions. They can be okay, as in “fire whale,” or not so much, as in “the sheer determination [half-orcs] inherit from their human ancestry.” But these gaps are yet another topic for another day.

Additive Comprehension

Additive comprehension occurs when new information requires audience members to revise their understanding. This comprehension works in fiction and game design, narrative and mechanics. Human communication requires additive comprehension. Artistic expression, including game design, can use additive comprehension as a device.

That device is common in fiction. New information reinforces what came before or puts the lie to it. “Half-demons have horns. That was common knowledge. But Bragaz had none. He could walk among mortals unnoticed.”

Or new information reveals or suggests previous information didn’t reveal. This usage is quite common, such as the revelation of Rey’s heritage in The Rise of Skywalker or the nature of Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense. Used in a subtler fashion, it leaves the reveal open to interpretation.

I used additive comprehension because the two words described what I meant. Then, I looked it up for grins. It’s a term Neil Young, a game designer, coined. He uses it the same way I did. His example is the origami unicorn left for Deckard in the Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut. That addition suggests Deckard’s apparent humanity could be in question.

Other words can be used to describe additive comprehension. Every fiction and game does it to some extent. It’s foreshadowing, the big reveal, or even the changes among different edits of the same film, as with Blade Runner. Or the Wizards of the Coast Star Wars Roleplaying Game “What’s this guy’s story?” ads. (4)

SW

Additive comprehension is common in game rules, too. D&D 5e spells it out as Specific Beats General. System mastery in any game is the result of additive comprehension. The artful use of additive comprehension facilitates system learning and mastery. Additive comprehension aids all learning, really. Knowledge of it helps in composing generalizations and exceptions. This essay relies on additive comprehension.

Awareness of additive comprehension and use of it also allows layering and incremental expansion. It’s the sort of expansion that superlatives can hamstring. But it’s also the sort of expansion that can facilitate telling a new story from the gaps left in a previous one. You can use additive comprehension to make something appear one way, then expand the audience’s view with another perspective that’s also true.

In a piece of fiction, you might say, “Half-demons have horns. Everyone knew that. But Bragaz had none, and so he could walk among mortals unnoticed. But boil in his veins the blood of the demon-god did.” You’ve revealed a lot in such a passage. You’ve used generalization and additive comprehension in a blunt way. Subtler use occurs in a lot of fiction.

Canon concerns mean creating from the gaps is important in big transmedia properties, because it allows them to expand the IP without negating parts of it. (5) That expansion is possible provided you haven’t cut off avenues of exploration with absolute statements. Contradicting absolutes in a big media IP’s canon means engaging in what-ifs. It’s an entertaining angle, but it’s dissatisfying to fans who place a premium on coherent canon.

Critical Conclusion

Take a critical eye to generalizations in your writing and design. Be skeptical when you see weasel words or superlatives. Must you hedge? Must you declare absolutes? That eye will help make your writing stronger. Your creations will convey your intent.

Support me on Patreon or Ko-fi if you like what I’ve done here or my other work and publications. Support allows me to keep working on essays such as this one, along with other side projects you can access on Patreon.

1) I did it on Twitter first, to refine my thinking and see what others had to say.

2) Which is something you should ask Owen K.C. Stephens about if you get a chance. Listening to him on such topics is well worth the time.

3) But I have a thing against words such as generally, typically, and similar weasels. They’re long and slippery enough to resemble their slinky namesake.

4) This ad campaign and product line that started in the year 2000, alongside the advent of 3e D&D! I remember seeing it in Dragon and Dungeon magazines years before I started working on D&D.

5) You can pull off additive comprehension despite previous absolutes if you remove concern for canon. But negating canon can alienate parts of the fandom. And I say that without supporting the notion of canon or entitled fandoms.

Top art is an original collage (by me) comprised of a photo by David Pennington and another by Randy Tarampi. Demon skull altered photo originally by SHOT, Eberron orc by Steve Prescott, weasel by Brent Jones, fire whale by Mirco Paganessi for the Starfinder Dawn of Flame AP, ad for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game by Wizards of the Coast (under the direction of Mark Jessup).

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