Discovering Ideas Handbook
2.5 Use Specifics and Examples
2.5.1 Use concrete, specific language.
2.5.2 Use Examples.
2.5.1 Use concrete, specific language
Specific language refers directly to particular cases, not generalizations about many cases. Concrete language refers to things that we can experience directly through the senses. The two terms have much in common. The opposite of specific is general. The opposite of concrete is abstract. So the name of an individual person, "Mr. Stockhurst" say, is both specific and concrete. A larger group, "the teachers at Triton Middle School," is concrete but more general. "Teachers" is even more general. "Education" is a concept, both abstract and general.
Whenever possible, use concrete, specific language. The best way to do this is to write about individuals wherever possible, and concrete things rather than abstract concepts. Write about teachers, students, and schools rather than education and learning. Or say what you want to get across about education or learning by showing us what teachers and students do in schools or what apprentices do in learning plumbing. Specifics are almost always clearer than generalizations--it's easier to tell exactly what you are saying. And the concrete is almost always easier to follow that the abstract. It may not be easier to write specifically and concretely, but it produces writing that is easier to read.
Wherever possible, make the subjects of your sentences refer to concrete beings rather then abstract concepts. Write about people, actual or hypothetical individuals, rather than abstract ideas. Be careful of the tendency to turn verbs into nouns by adding "ing" to the end and then linking them together with "is" or "are." This results in sentences like "Learning is aided by hands-on experience." The statement is true, but it is static, abstract, and general. It just sits there, rather than going anywhere, because the actors are left out. By turning the verb "learn" into a noun, "learning," the writer has started the sentence in a way that makes it easy to leave out all the people. Ask who is doing the action, and make them the subject: "Students who can have hands-on experience learn more." That sentence moves, there's some action in it, because the actors, the students have been made the subject. But it remains very general, and subject to misinterpretation. It would be much more effective if it were more specific, if the students were individual people instead of an enormous group: "The students in Mr. Stockhurst's history class build models of Civil War battlegrounds with their own hands, and then reenact the battles in class. By acting out the events of history, they learn to see how those events fit together, and how some caused others." By writing about individuals, rather than just large classes of people, you let your readers see your ideas in action. You show them why you believe as you do, rather than just telling them what to think.
2.5.2 Use Examples
The easiest, and usually the best, way to keep your writing specific and concrete, as illustrated in the previous paragraph, is to use specific examples whenever possible. An example, of course, is simply a case or instance of something. A specific example is a particular instance. So to give a specific example of technology would be to write about particular people using a particular machine. To give a specific example of any human activity would require that you write about individual people. To give a specific example of teaching history, as in the example above, would be to describe what a particular teacher or students do. An easy rule of thumb to test the specificity of your writing is to ask whether you write about individual people in each paragraph. If you don't, you are generalizing too much. Give examples of every point you make, in most if not all of your paragraphs, and make your examples clear and forceful by making them specific. Write about people and what people actually do, not just about ideas or concepts.
The example given above illustrates two other important points about examples. First, examples take more words to relate than do generalizations. The sentence, "Learning is aided by hands-on experience" contains six words. The example about Mr. Stockhurst's class contains 45 words. The chief reason why many students have trouble producing an essay of reasonable length is that they write largely in generalizations. If you are writing in large generalizations, you can say everything you have to say very briefly. But to introduce an example requires more words. The largest, in the sense of broadest, topic does not produce the longest essay. Quite to the contrary, you get length not from generalization but from detail. The example of Mr. Stockhurst's history class is worth a least a substantial paragraph. That example could be developed well beyond the two sentences given it above. We could look at a specific battle and find out what individual students thought about the events they were reenacting. Different students would have different roles in the reenactment and would have different feelings about those events. If we could compare the reactions and opinions of different students it would help to show us a variety of responses to the experience. A fully developed example of what went on in the classroom would allow the readers to do something like those students were doing: to really get a sense of what the experience they were reading about was like. In other words, examples in good writing are similar to hands-on learning exercises: they help the reader experience the ideas, to get a feel for what you are describing.
That brings us to the second point about examples. While they are longer than generalizations, they are also more interesting. All other things being equal, examples are more entertaining and involving than generalizations. I have tried the experiment many times of asking a class, after either hearing or reading an essay, to write down the first three things they remember from the essay. In almost every case, the thing that readers remember best from an essay is an example, usually a detailed and fully developed one. The reason is that they were paying closer attention to the example than they were to the surrounding explanation. And the reason we pay more attention to examples is that they are more interesting. This is probably true for several reasons. For one thing, examples are usually easier to understand than generalized explanations. A well written example lets us see and hear something that really happened, shows us people (or animals or machines) acting as we see them act all the time. It's like being there. It relates to us a personal experience that we have not had, but that we might have had, if we had been in the right place at the right time. So a well written example is easy, almost effortless to follow. But an example does something else: it moves. The best examples are stories, narratives of events. That means that we can see how one person or event changes another. Mr. Stockhurst's reenactments work so well in his history class because they "bring history to life" for his students. That is to say, they let the students see history as an unfolding story. When we see history as a story we see that it could have been different, that had Pickett or Lee or Grant taken another turn at a key point the outcome of a battle could have changed the outcome of a war. When we see people moving through time, making choices, dealing with consequences, we discover the excitement, the suspense, the anticipation that keeps our attention focused. Many students have responded to the question of why they didn't use more examples with comments like "I didn't want to bore my readers with long examples" or "I thought examples would just drag it out." I think this attitude has things exactly backwards. Examples are usually the best way to keep readers interested and involved, as well as being the best way to fill out and develop your ideas.
One final point about examples. In this handbook I have urged you to make your thesis statements as specific as possible. One reason why this is a good idea is that a specific thesis statement points to the kind of examples that would help to develop it. The closer your thesis is to the examples that can illustrate and support your points, the easier it will be to write a good essay about it.
Copyright © 2003 by John Tagg
Paragraphs & Topic Sentences
A paragraph is a series of sentences that are organized and coherent, and are all related to a single topic. Almost every piece of writing you do that is longer than a few sentences should be organized into paragraphs. This is because paragraphs show a reader where the subdivisions of an essay begin and end, and thus help the reader see the organization of the essay and grasp its main points.
Paragraphs can contain many different kinds of information. A paragraph could contain a series of brief examples or a single long illustration of a general point. It might describe a place, character, or process; narrate a series of events; compare or contrast two or more things; classify items into categories; or describe causes and effects. Regardless of the kind of information they contain, all paragraphs share certain characteristics. One of the most important of these is a topic sentence.
A well-organized paragraph supports or develops a single controlling idea, which is expressed in a sentence called the topic sentence. A topic sentence has several important functions: it substantiates or supports an essay’s thesis statement; it unifies the content of a paragraph and directs the order of the sentences; and it advises the reader of the subject to be discussed and how the paragraph will discuss it. Readers generally look to the first few sentences in a paragraph to determine the subject and perspective of the paragraph. That’s why it’s often best to put the topic sentence at the very beginning of the paragraph. In some cases, however, it’s more effective to place another sentence before the topic sentence—for example, a sentence linking the current paragraph to the previous one, or one providing background information.
Although most paragraphs should have a topic sentence, there are a few situations when a paragraph might not need a topic sentence. For example, you might be able to omit a topic sentence in a paragraph that narrates a series of events, if a paragraph continues developing an idea that you introduced (with a topic sentence) in the previous paragraph, or if all the sentences and details in a paragraph clearly refer—perhaps indirectly—to a main point. The vast majority of your paragraphs, however, should have a topic sentence.
Most paragraphs in an essay have a three-part structure—introduction, body, and conclusion. You can see this structure in paragraphs whether they are narrating, describing, comparing, contrasting, or analyzing information. Each part of the paragraph plays an important role in communicating your meaning to your reader.
Introduction: the first section of a paragraph; should include the topic sentence and any other sentences at the beginning of the paragraph that give background information or provide a transition.
Body: follows the introduction; discusses the controlling idea, using facts, arguments, analysis, examples, and other information.
Conclusion: the final section; summarizes the connections between the information discussed in the body of the paragraph and the paragraph’s controlling idea.
The following paragraph illustrates this pattern of organization. In this paragraph the topic sentence and concluding sentence (CAPITALIZED) both help the reader keep the paragraph’s main point in mind.
SCIENTISTS HAVE LEARNED TO SUPPLEMENT THE SENSE OF SIGHT IN NUMEROUS WAYS. In front of the tiny pupil of the eye they put, on Mount Palomar, a great monocle 200 inches in diameter, and with it see 2000 times farther into the depths of space. Or they look through a small pair of lenses arranged as a microscope into a drop of water or blood, and magnify by as much as 2000 diameters the living creatures there, many of which are among man’s most dangerous enemies. Or, if we want to see distant happenings on earth, they use some of the previously wasted electromagnetic waves to carry television images which they re-create as light by whipping tiny crystals on a screen with electrons in a vacuum. Or they can bring happenings of long ago and far away as colored motion pictures, by arranging silver atoms and color-absorbing molecules to force light waves into the patterns of original reality. Or if we want to see into the center of a steel casting or the chest of an injured child, they send the information on a beam of penetrating short-wave X rays, and then convert it back into images we can see on a screen or photograph. THUS ALMOST EVERY TYPE OF ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION YET DISCOVERED HAS BEEN USED TO EXTEND OUR SENSE OF SIGHT IN SOME WAY.
George Harrison, “Faith and the Scientist”
In a coherent paragraph, each sentence relates clearly to the topic sentence or controlling idea, but there is more to coherence than this. If a paragraph is coherent, each sentence flows smoothly into the next without obvious shifts or jumps. A coherent paragraph also highlights the ties between old information and new information to make the structure of ideas or arguments clear to the reader.
Along with the smooth flow of sentences, a paragraph’s coherence may also be related to its length. If you have written a very long paragraph, one that fills a double-spaced typed page, for example, you should check it carefully to see if it should start a new paragraph where the original paragraph wanders from its controlling idea. On the other hand, if a paragraph is very short (only one or two sentences, perhaps), you may need to develop its controlling idea more thoroughly, or combine it with another paragraph.
A number of other techniques that you can use to establish coherence in paragraphs are described below.
Repeat key words or phrases. Particularly in paragraphs in which you define or identify an important idea or theory, be consistent in how you refer to it. This consistency and repetition will bind the paragraph together and help your reader understand your definition or description.
Create parallel structures. Parallel structures are created by constructing two or more phrases or sentences that have the same grammatical structure and use the same parts of speech. By creating parallel structures you make your sentences clearer and easier to read. In addition, repeating a pattern in a series of consecutive sentences helps your reader see the connections between ideas. In the paragraph above about scientists and the sense of sight, several sentences in the body of the paragraph have been constructed in a parallel way. The parallel structures (which have been emphasized) help the reader see that the paragraph is organized as a set of examples of a general statement.
Be consistent in point of view, verb tense, and number. Consistency in point of view, verb tense, and number is a subtle but important aspect of coherence. If you shift from the more personal "you" to the impersonal “one,” from past to present tense, or from “a man” to “they,” for example, you make your paragraph less coherent. Such inconsistencies can also confuse your reader and make your argument more difficult to follow.
Use transition words or phrases between sentences and between paragraphs. Transitional expressions emphasize the relationships between ideas, so they help readers follow your train of thought or see connections that they might otherwise miss or misunderstand. The following paragraph shows how carefully chosen transitions (CAPITALIZED) lead the reader smoothly from the introduction to the conclusion of the paragraph.
I don’t wish to deny that the flattened, minuscule head of the large-bodied "stegosaurus" houses little brain from our subjective, top-heavy perspective, BUT I do wish to assert that we should not expect more of the beast. FIRST OF ALL, large animals have relatively smaller brains than related, small animals. The correlation of brain size with body size among kindred animals (all reptiles, all mammals, FOR EXAMPLE) is remarkably regular. AS we move from small to large animals, from mice to elephants or small lizards to Komodo dragons, brain size increases, BUT not so fast as body size. IN OTHER WORDS, bodies grow faster than brains, AND large animals have low ratios of brain weight to body weight. IN FACT, brains grow only about two-thirds as fast as bodies. SINCE we have no reason to believe that large animals are consistently stupider than their smaller relatives, we must conclude that large animals require relatively less brain to do as well as smaller animals. IF we do not recognize this relationship, we are likely to underestimate the mental power of very large animals, dinosaurs in particular.
Stephen Jay Gould, “Were Dinosaurs Dumb?”
SOME USEFUL TRANSITIONS
(modified from Diana Hacker, A Writer’s Reference)
- To show addition:
- again, and, also, besides, equally important, first (second, etc.), further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, moreover, next, too
- To give examples:
- for example, for instance, in fact, specifically, that is, to illustrate
- To compare:
- also, in the same manner, likewise, similarly
- To contrast:
- although, and yet, at the same time, but, despite, even though, however, in contrast, in spite of, nevertheless, on the contrary, on the other hand, still, though, yet
- To summarize or conclude:
- all in all, in conclusion, in other words, in short, in summary, on the whole, that is, therefore, to sum up
- To show time:
- after, afterward, as, as long as, as soon as, at last, before, during, earlier, finally, formerly, immediately, later, meanwhile, next, since, shortly, subsequently, then, thereafter, until, when, while
- To show place or direction:
- above, below, beyond, close, elsewhere, farther on, here, nearby, opposite, to the left (north, etc.)
- To indicate logical relationship:
- accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, for this reason, hence, if, otherwise, since, so, then, therefore, thus
Produced by Writing Tutorial Services, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN