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

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