Make Your Writing Come Alive with Specific Details

by Laura Yeager

June 2014

I teach beginning writing to college freshman. It's the ole Freshman Composition routine.

There are several things I try to convey in a single semester, including how to organize an essay around a thesis statement; use the patterns of development to create paragraphs; organize paragraphs in the most productive, interesting way; employ transitions, parallelism, and key word repetition to build coherence; avoid wordiness, slang, needless repetition, and cliché; write with correct grammar and punctuation; research an idea; use a documentation system; edit one's own work; and edit others’ work.

But I think the most exciting thing I teach is how to be specific.

Case in point. John was writing a paper about the hip hop lifestyle. He was defining hip hop and describing the participants in this movement, but nowhere in the essay did he include any rap lyrics. How could this be? The specifics, the guts of the essay had been omitted.

So I suggested that he add some. (I'd add some here, but I think I'd be violating copyright laws.

We all know what rap is, right? Upbeat, half-spoken, half-sung, clever—sometimes harsh—rhymes about life and how to survive it?)

And instantly the paper came alive.

To envelop yourself in specifics try reading these authors:

(in no particular order)



E.B. White

Maya Angelou

Malcolm Gladwell


Tennessee Williams

Lorrie Moore

Langston Hughes



J.D. Salinger


Beth Henley


Larry David

I studied fiction writing as an undergrad at Oberlin College in the 1980s. Oberlin stressed the importance of specificity. The instructors covered our stories with comments that said "great use of specific details" or, on the other hand, "more specifics are needed." This was the best thing they could have done for their students. Writing is about specifics.

Specifics can be examples, as in John's case. He's talking about the music of hip hop: rap music. He must give an example of a rap song's lyrics.

Specifics can be description, answering how something appeals to the senses: what does something look like, smell like, taste like, feel like, sound like?

In the first draft of his essay, John told the reader that hip hop had a certain look; hip hop artists were dressed in a certain way. But he never got specific and told the reader how. I quickly suggested that he describe the hip hop look.

In a second draft, John described hip hop fashion: baggy pants worn low on the body, plenty of bling, and a baseball cap worn backwards on the head.

And again his writing came alive.

Specifics express how things truly feel, how the experience is received in the brain and in the heart.

Case in point. I was writing an article last weekend about ways to stay married—"Ten Marriage Tips for Long, Happy Marriages." I discussed things like turn-taking, compromising, using money wisely and remembering common courtesy. Then, I got to sex. Trying to be specific about sex in a marriage, I attempted to get to the heart of it. I wrote "The bedroom is a place where you can truly let your guard down." (Remember this wasn't a romance novel. It was an essay for a religious blog.) That was putting it mildly.

Finally, specificity might just relate to diction, or word choice. Instead of “dog,” say “Pekingese.” Instead of “bird,” say “cardinal.”

Being specific is important in fiction and in nonfiction. It's a rule that crosses genres. Specificity is what makes all good art good.

If you want to be a better writer, be a little more specific. Plug in a salient example or two, add some divine description, try to get to the heart of a feeling, or just pay attention to finer word choice.

Then you'll be writing to the best of your ability.

Teaching things such as specificity in the Freshman Composition classroom is how I’ve made my living all my life. I’m 51. Teaching writing has taught me much about my own writing. In this laboratory, I learned how to write nonfiction. I went from writing exclusively fiction to writing mostly nonfiction. I relied on Freshman Composition texts to help tell me how to do it.

In the process of teaching, of dissecting the writing process for kids, sometimes I get lucky and not only do I get it, but the student gets it as well. Needless to say, John, in his second draft, earned an “A.”

And I was happy.

Who cares about earning big bucks? Having a private office? And health benefits?

Did I mention that I’m a part-time, university Freshman Composition teacher?

But that’s another story.

Next time you encounter the page, press yourself to be specific. You’ll be writing masterpieces before you know it.

Laura Yeager is Tommy Dolan’s mom.  Tommy is nine.  Laura writes both fiction and nonfiction.  Iowa State University recently published her Master’s thesis—First Aid and Other Stories.  Laura teaches freshman composition at Kent State University and Online Creative Writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

Laura YeagerComment