Monday, August 1, 2016

Specificity Is a Key to Memorable Writing: Teaching About the "Spectrum of Specificity"

Writing with Specific Details:
Levels of SHOWING on a Spectrum of Specificity

[This is a lesson I use with my students. You can find similar lessons on my TeachersPayTeachers online store page.]

        VAGUE/ “TELLING” àààààààààààSPECIFIC/ “SHOWING”

1) She seemed nervous.

                                     2) She hid her nervousness, but the cup shook in her hand.

                                                         3) "Her face revealed nothing, but the tea                                                                             lapped the inside of the cup when she                                                                                         passed it to him."
                                                                                           (Lee Kochenderfer)

Notice the increasing specificity in the details above, resulting in a deeper, vivid word picture, one that makes the reader think, rather than just passively absorb information. Details are tools to engage readers in a verbal experience.
EXERCISE 1: Create your own spectrum of specificity, starting with the vague words and adding two levels of depth to produce a vivid word picture.


1) His heart ached over losing her.       2)                                                                         3)

1) She acted nonchalant.                    2)                                                                          3)

1) He embarrassed her.                    2)                                                                           3)


          After completing the above creative writing lesson with me in his private class, young author Sam wrote an essay about what he learned--an additional exercise designed to practice both essay-writing skills and introduce metacognitive analysis to enrich the depth of his learning. I present to you, below, the excellent essay he wrote, which is my way of SHOWING, NOT TELLING what my student took away from this two-part lesson.

An Essay on "The Spectrum of Specificity" Exercise
by Sam X., age 13

I stared at the vague descriptions on the paper. Each description changed from a simple statement to a vivid picture placed in the reader’s mind. By the last level, the description required inference to fully understand it. This lesson shows how specificity works and why it is important by comparing vague and specific descriptions.

Without specificity, readers soak in information but do not have to actively think, defeating the purpose of reading. An example of a vague description is “His heart ached over losing her.” However, by turning it into a more specific description, “Laying flowers on the tombstone, he couldn’t help remembering Sarah’s deep brown eyes,” the reader must infer that the girl he loves has died, and that his heart aches for her. Instead of telling the reader straight, letting readers think enhances their experience. “She acted nonchalant” is another description which needs improvement. Instead, “She tried to hide her wistfulness as Joe held hands with Karen and kissed her.” From the latter description, it seems that she also likes Joe, but tries to cover it up. The former description, however, is a boring statement that readers will not enjoy. To write an interesting and engaging piece of writing, writers must use specificity and show, not tell.

This lesson provided an example of the difference between vague and specific phrases, and allowed me to create my own “spectrums” of specificity. Knowing how to do this greatly enriches my writing and engrosses the reader.