Expanding Your Ideas with Details, Details, DetailsDoes your writing teacher keep hounding you to use the “E’s”? Is she always telling you to give examples, evidence or to explain? Read on!
Why Are Details So Important?Let’s say you ask a friend for directions to hishouse. Here are two versions of his answer:Version 1: Go to the light, turn left, drive up the road a bit, then take another left at the store. My house is the big one on the right hand side of the road.Version 2: From here, turn right out of the parking lot and head east on 185th – that’s as if you’re heading toward the elementary school. At the first light, take a left onto Maple Street. If you pass the espresso stand shaped like a giant cup of coffee, you’re going the right way. Stay on Maple for another two miles; the road jogs around to the right, but stay on it. Look for the large sporting goods store – it’s called Biff’s Outdoors – on the left. The road off to the left JUST past Biff’s is 153rd – that’s my street. Turn left there. My house is the third one on the right – it’s blue with white trim and you’ll see my Mom’s red Jeep parked outside.
Why Are Details So Important?Which set of directions is more likely to get you whereyou need to go? Version Two, of course! The difference is in the details.Sure, Version One gives us the facts, but it also missessome very important details; we could easily turn on thewrong street using #1. The second set of directionshelps create a picture in the reader’s mind, givingspecific and helpful details, such as street names andlandmarks.An essay is the same. A writer can write a bare-boneslist of main ideas, but how boring. The purpose ofwriting is to communicate, but you’re notcommunicating if you put your reader to sleep.
But how do I add more? I never seem to write enough to please my teacher?One of the biggest mistakes students make when told toadd more detail is simply to repeat the same vague idea.Example: My friends are really important to me. They help support me in bad times. [Add details]Addition: When my life takes a turn for the worse, I can count on my friends to be there, through thick of thin. [Not any better] See the next slide for the improved version.[Note: Please don’t really write the “Friendship” essay. English teachers get these every year; they all sound the same: clichéd, repetitious and trite. Sorry – it’s the truth.]
But how do I add more? I never seem to write enough to please my teacher? Second TryExample: My friends are really important to me. They help support me in bad times. [Add details]Revision/Addition: I don’t know what I’d do without my friends to help support me in difficult times. Take my buddy Jared. On the day I found out that I didn’t make the basketball team, I just sat on the couch, slumped over with self-pity and doubting my abilities to do anything right. Jared zipped over in that little green Datsun of his, making all sorts of noise because his muffler’s bad. Despite my protests, he dragged me out of the house to an all-ages show. The music was loud and raw – just what I needed to forget the disappointment of that afternoon.While the first attempt to add details resulted in just a bland repetition ofthe same boring blather, the above rewrite comes to life with a SPECIFICexample. See the difference?
When I say specific, I mean . . .a) Use namesb) Use sensory details (the five senses)c) Use dialogue (actual quotes of what people said)d) Give anecdotes (real stories to illustrate a point)e) Provide interesting, quirky details that add realism (the muffler is an example)
When I say specific, I mean . . .a) Use namesPoor Example: After school, my friend is coming over and we’re heading to the store to try out some new computer games.Better: After school, my friend Lenora is coming over and we’re heading to GamePro to try out the new versions of Halo 18 and Super Extreme Mario Plus Plus.
When I say specific, I mean . . .b) Use sensory detailsSensory details are details that appeals to one or more ofthe FIVE SENSES: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Thesehelp put your reader in the scene.Poor Example: The day was perfect!Better: The sun gently warmed our backs and a comfortable breeze swayed through the leaves of the birch trees. Across the rich green lawn, lavender blossoms scented the air with their perfume.
When I say specific, I mean . . .c) Use dialoguePoor Example: My brother said that he was really angry but I just turned it into a joke, which made him even angrier.Better: “You jerk!” my brother Brian yelled. “I can’t believe you borrowed my knee-high socks without asking! This is the last straw.” “Brian,” I responded calmly, “I promise never to borrow your straw without asking you.” “Stuff it, you butthead!” he retorted and stormed out of the room.
When I say specific, I mean . . .d) Give anecdotesAnecdotes are short illustrative stories.Poor Example: My sixth grade was pretty crazy.Better: My sixth grade teacher was pretty crazy. For example, he used to run around the room having foot races with his invisible friends, Homer and Henrietta – and they would win. Legend had it that once he jumped off a desk in order to fly and broke his arm.
When I say specific, I mean . . .e) Provide quirky, interesting details that add realismPoor Example: Mrs. Blanders surprised the whole class by flinging open the door. She waved her arms excitedly and motioned her head toward the hallway, where we could barely see a commotion rising.Better: Mrs. Blanders surprised the whole Anatomy and Physiology class by flinging open the heavy wooden door. She waved her lanky arms excitedly and motioned her heavy blonde beehive toward the locker-lined hallway, where we could barely see a commotion rising.
What if I’m writing a formal paper?The principle is the same with formal papers. Just bespecific. Here’s an example:Just the facts ma’am: However, the Declaration of Independence did not mean freedom for all. [Teacher comment: explain, add detail!]Details added: Our forefathers were very proud of their work; they bravely declared their independence - the words of freedom ringing in their ears. After eight years of war, that freedom was finally recognized. But not everyone in America had their independence – not by a long shot. Look at history. What was the Fourth of July to African-Americans, first enslaved and then discriminated against; to Native Americans, relocated and watching while the plentiful land was stripped; to women, fighting for equal rights and recognition; to Japanese-Americans, thrown in internment camps because of distrust; or to the countless others who have lived in this country, under the Declaration of Independence only to be denied its freedoms? What did they have to celebrate?
What if I’m writing a formal paper?Your details provide evidence to prove what youclaim. If you write, “More teens in America aresmoking than ever before,” how do I know you’retelling the truth and not just making it up?If in a literary paper you conclude, “The characterof John is riddled with guilt over his wife’s death;this guilt carries over into all aspects of his life,crippling his ability to function as a normal humanbeing,” you must provide evidence from the text toback up this interpretation.
What if I’m writing a formal paper?If you state “The Red Cross provides a myriad ofservices vital to persons all over the world,” youdarn well better give some examples to illustratethis point. If your writing were a question andanswer piece, what you someone ask you? – What types of services? Can you list a few? – What countries do they serve? – Why is it vital? Your job as a writer is to anticipate and answer these unspoken questions.
What if I’m writing a formal paper?Basically, it all boils down to providing evidence for your claim.A claim is like a lawyer saying “Your honor, my client is innocent.” Obviously a lawyer’s job doesn’t end there. It’s his or her job to PROVE his claim with EVIDENCE. That’s exactly what your need to do as a writer. All of the previous examples simply needed EVIDENCE – those are the specific details.
More ideas for formal papersUse EVIDENCE such as: a) Facts b) Statistics c) Quotes from authority d) Anecdotes or hypothetical examples e) Analogies (comparisons)
Use EVIDENCE such as:a)FactsPoor Example: Smoking is an unhealthy habit.Better: Studies show that smokers get sick more often than non-smokers (Martin).
Use EVIDENCE such as:b) StatisticsPoor Example: Despite anti-smoking education, everyday many, many teens take up smoking.Better: Despite anti-smoking education, approximately 3,000 teens take up smoking everyday (Martin).
Use EVIDENCE such as:c) Quotes from authorityPoor Example: Doctors agree that smoking is a serious health risk.Better: Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop warned Americans that, “Cigarette smoking is clearly identified as the chief, preventable cause of death in our society."
Use EVIDENCE such as:d) Anecdotes or hypothetical examplesPoor Example: Many young children are influenced by what teens do.Better: Imagine an elementary kid – we’ll call him Billy – with a teenage brother who smokes. Because Billy is young and desperate to “grow up” and have the freedoms of his brother, he transfers most of his brother’s habits, behaviors and possessions into some vague notion of being “cool.” So naturally, when Billy spies on his brother and other older friends smoking, Billy thinks this is must be a very “cool” activity.
Use EVIDENCE such as:e) AnalogiesAnalogies are comparisons between two unlike things thatshare some similarities. Metaphors and similes are formsof analogies.Poor Example: Some people think that cigars, pipe tobacco or low-tar cigarettes are safe alternative to cigarette smoking.Better: Some people think that cigars, pipe tobacco or low-tar cigarettes are safe alternative to cigarette smoking. This is akin to playing in traffic with a safety vest on. You’re still playing in traffic – the activity itself is dangerous, no matter how you try to justify it.
Final NoteRemember the house directions from the beginning.What make writing interesting, understandable andmemorable? Yes, it’s the DETAILS.Whenever you don’t know what to say, write downsome questions a reader might have on the side ofyour draft. If that fails, ask a friend to come upwith some questions. Once you answer thesequestions by adding details to the text, I canguarantee you’ll have a stronger paper!
Work CitedMartin, Terry. “Smoking Facts for Parents and Teens.” Smoking Cessation. About.com, 15 Jan. 2008. <http://quitsmoking.about.com/ od/teensmoking/a/teensmokefacts.htm>.