Beginning writers tend to make general statements. When they learn to focus on specifics and provide concrete examples, their writing becomes stronger.
Introduce the topic with an example
Project this passage on the screen:
Mediterranean and Baltic are the principal avenues of the ghetto. Dogs are everywhere. A pack of seven passes me. Block after block, there are three-story brick houses. Whole segments of them are abandoned, a thousand broken windows. Some parts are intact, occupied. A mattress lies in the street, soaking in a pool of water. Wet stuffing is coming out of the mattress. A postman is having a rye and a beer in the Plantation Bar at nine-fifteen in the morning. I ask him idly if he knows where Marvin Gardens is. He does not.
—from “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” by John McPhee
After taking the passage off the screen, I ask the class which details they remember. Usually they remember the dogs, the broken windows, the wet mattress, and/or the postman having a beer in the morning.
Why, I ask them, do you think you remembered those things?
The answer, more or less: because they were memorable images. You could see them in your mind.
What if he had written the passage this way instead? The ghetto is a poor neighborhood. There are lots of abandoned buildings. Why wouldn’t that be as good?
The answer: because it states a general fact and offers one concrete detail, but doesn’t really tell you specifics. You end up with a hazy idea of a poor neighborhood rather than a clear picture.
If you want your reader to see and understand what you mean, the best strategy is to illustrate your idea with specific examples. Concrete objects are ideal.
“What do you mean by concrete objects?” a student once asked. One of the better definitions comes from John Maguire, a writing instructor who stresses this lesson above all others. A concrete object, he explains, is “something you can drop on your foot.” In the passage we’re discussing, the concrete objects include dogs, brick houses, broken windows, the mattress, the stuffing, and the postman (even though you can’t drop all of them on your foot).
Concrete objects convey ideas more effectively than abstractions such as poverty. The more you write about actual things—objects you can touch—the more readers will understand and enjoy your writing.
Notice, also, that the author of this passage has chosen interesting, unusual details: for example, the pack of seven dogs, the mattress soaking in a pool of water. You can imagine him standing in the street, taking notes, like an artist drawing a picture. He went out and reported what was there, instead of asking himself, What might I see in a poor neighborhood?
Side-note: I always ask the class if anyone knows what city he’s talking about.With each passing year, fewer and fewer students manage to identify Atlantic City—even though I teach in New Jersey, and even though most of them have played Monopoly, which takes its property names from Atlantic City. Interestingly, the two streets McPhee names, Mediterranean and Baltic, are the cheapest properties on the board, the first ones you come to after GO—and they were still the poorest part of the city when he wrote his essay.
A bit of historical background on “The Search for Marvin Gardens”: Atlantic City was once a thriving resort, but it went downhill after World War II and still hasn’t completely recovered. In the 1970s, McPhee went there to see what had become of the places named on the Monopoly board.
At this point, students should try to practice this skill in their own writing.
But it’s not easy. Students who have never done this before can’t flip a switch and suddenly produce writing that’s full of vivid, concrete images.
Therefore, let them take notes first.
The simplest option is to have them note sensory details of the room they’re in: sights, sounds, smells. (Touch? Taste? Probably not, but who knows?)
Ask them to jot down notes as if they were reporters, assigned to describe the room in a paragraph. Remind them that their mission is to choose the details that will give a reader the clearest, most accurate impression of the room: not the bare facts about its dimensions and paint color, but whatever will capture what this room really feels like when you’re sitting in it.
For guidance, you might tell them: “Try to be as specific as you can. If you write, There aren’t any windows, you could add, The only light comes from the long fluorescent fixtures in the ceiling, which buzz faintly.”
Once they’ve made their notes, ask them to choose the details they think are most evocative.
Then, ask them to turn these details into a paragraph.
Once they’ve finished, they should post their work, and read what others have written.
A more interesting variation on this exercise is to have students write a portrait of a person they know well — a best friend or family member — by showing the person performing a characteristic action, i.e., whatever action they most closely associate with that person. The portrait should include the specific objects the person is interacting with. Students have written about a parent cooking in the kitchen, a sibling playing a sport, a friend fixing a car, etc.
You may be thinking, This makes sense when you’re describing a neighborhood, a person, or a classroom… but how do you use concrete objects when you’re writing about an idea?
Good question. Some ideas are abstract; it’s not easy to express them with concrete specifics. But most topics lend themselves to specific examples. Here are a couple of illustrations, taken from assignments I gave my students recently:
- Should most people go to college? My students read two essays arguing opposite sides of this question. I asked them to weigh in and give reasons to support their opinions. Most of them used statistical evidence (about student debt and earnings differentials), but I also urged them to draw on their personal experience and discuss the career options they would have with and without a degree. What appeals to you about each option? What bothers you? The results included some very “concrete” writing; but even those who couldn’t make that leap wrote more specifically than they might have otherwise.
- What is the appropriate response to a perceived microaggression? The students read a personal essay by an Asian-American woman about her uncomfortable experience at a family gathering. They also read a much longer analysis that portrays the concern with microaggressions as overblown and harmful. I asked them to respond based on either personal experience or (if they’ve never been on the receiving end of an unintentional race-based insult) their perceptions of the two essays. For those who described a personal experience, I suggested that they describe the context: where did this happen, who was there, who was speaking, etc. For those who discussed the Asian-American woman’s essay, I suggested that they note the setting in which the incident happened, and how that affected her response.
John Maguire goes even further. He believes in training students to discuss abstract concepts in concrete terms. Here’s an excerpt from an essay in which he explains how:
“If you are writing about markets, recognize that market is an abstract idea, and find a bunch of objects that relate to it… Give me concrete nouns. Show me a wooden roadside stand with corn and green peppers on it, if you want. Show me a supermarket displaying six kinds of oranges under halogen lights. Show me a stock exchange floor where bids are shouted and answered.”
Students can practice this skill by first making notes and then writing a paragraph describing, as specifically as they can, their room… or their town… or a friend… or whatever you feel would interest or challenge them.