17 2. Specific Details

The key to successful writing is providing your readers with images they can visualize. That is why poets learn to use metaphors and similes so effectively: they compare an image the reader does not know to an image the reader is familiar with (as big as a breadbox is a famous simile). You are not writing poetry here, but your essays must have images that your reader will understand.

In conversation, a listener will ask you a question if he or she does not understand something you say. You don’t have that privilege when you are communicating via the written word. You are not there to answer your reader’s questions, so you have to make sure you answer any questions in the information you provide (be thorough). The best way to do that is by using specific details, images your reader can see.

Take a look at the following two sentences. Which one gives you a clearer, stronger image of what is going on?

  • He ordered too much food and paid for it later.
  • He ordered two steaks, two baked potatoes, an order of french fries, corn on the cob, Caesar’s salad, chicken wings, cheese sticks, apple pie and chocolate cake. Two hours later, he was sick to his stomach and regurgitated the entire meal.

Obviously, you know much more about the second scenario than the first. Sickening as it is, it gives a clear picture (you might use your favorite word for regurgitate to give an even stronger image). In the first sentence, it’s not even clear what “paid for it later” means. Sounds to me like it could mean he paid for his bill after eating, though he might not have eaten everything he ordered. Who knows what it means.

Generalizations are vague images. If I said “she is beautiful,” everyone hearing that would have a different image of what she looked like. Beautiful is a vague word, an abstract word that doesn’t give the reader a specific image. But if I said “she has gorgeous (whatever color you wish) hair, bright blue (or brown) eyes (and whatever physical images make her beautiful)…” then the listener sees a specific image.

She is happy.

The car is fast.

The man ran.

I am lucky.

Each one of these statements is vague, generalized. Can you think of an image that would be more specific for each? Think in terms of action for verbs (how does one show happiness?) and proper nouns for people, places and things (a Corvette is a much different image than a Metro, for instance).

So I’d like you to think about being specific with your writing. Look at what other writers do, how they use specific images instead of generalizations. Take the time to read as much as you can and to study the way other people write. You can learn a lot just by studying the techniques of others. Practice being specific.

In the discussion below in Module 1, I am going to ask you to read a short selection and then comment on what makes the selection good in terms of specific details- why the imagery makes the writing come alive. I would like each of you to make an initial comment about how the writer uses specifics, and then I would like you to respond to the comments made by your classmates. It should be fun.


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