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Be Specific - writing guide

EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Jan 26, 2009   #1
One of the keys to successful writing is to use specific details rather than dealing in generalities.

A common mistake that many people make when writing essays is to start with a series of general statements. So, a student might begin an essay, on, say, the themes of Romeo and Juliet, by writing something like this:

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most tragic love stories ever written. It has been performed countless times, and read by millions of students...

All of this is common knowledge that has no place in any sort of focused, well-written literary essay. The information presented has nothing to do with the themes of the play, either, making the sentences particularly irrelevant and inappropriate, given the topic. Often such sentences are really only a way for students to get started. They aren't sure how to begin, so they start writing down whatever they know about the subject until they finally figure out what they want to say. This is a perfectly valid approach to beginning an essay, but it only works if you go back afterwards and delete the irrelevant material.

So, the first step in preferring the specific to the general is to get rid of any and all statements that provide only general information about your topic without advancing your argument in favor of your thesis statement.

Next, you need to focus on replacing very general statements that do advance your thesis statement, but that still make for a weak essay. Consider, for example, a university application essay in which your implicit thesis statement is something along the lines of "I'm a great person - admit me!" In such cases, many students produce essays that run along these lines:

I am an intelligent, articulate individual. I am also very dedicated and hardworking. I participate in many extra-curricular activities while doing well in school. I am also very social, and belong to many clubs. I enjoy hanging out with my friends...

All of the above does relate directly to the thesis. However, the information is so vague and general that it could apply to most of the other applicants as easily as it does to the author. Worse, it could all be a pack of lies - anyone can say they are intelligent, articulate, and hardworking. However, the way the above excerpt is written tends to indicate that the author is none of these things.

A better approach would be to use specific anecdotes, or very short stories, to show the reader your good qualities, or, at the very least, to mention specific and concise details about the extra-curricular activities and schoolwork that would make you stand out:

As a member of the debate club, I have learned to express myself clearly and concisely, whether I'm discussing the merits of global warming science or the reasons for the current economic slowdown.

The above excerpt essentially states that the author is articulate. However, it presents specific details about how the author is articulate (he can express himself clearly and concisely) and focuses on a specific activity, debating, that the author has engaged in that proves that he is articulate. It further adds specific details about that activity, by providing examples of what was debated, namely global warming and the economy. All of this shows that the author is A) social (he's a member of a club that specializes in public speaking) B) intelligent (he can discuss both global warming and the economy) C) articulate (The sentence says that, but the way it is written also shows it.) In other words, it shows all of the things that the first version only told.

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