Students can make their essays stand out from the rest by concentrating on specific, concrete details.
Composition instructors don't have to teach long to begin to feel like they've read it all and heard every argument out there. That's why many teachers will make some topics off limits to students - they don't want to hear them anymore. The danger for new students in the classroom is that their essays might sound like many essays before theirs, and so those papers won't likely make a good impression.
Obviously, one way to avoid this dilemma is by choosing extremely unusual topics, but students don't necessarily have to go that far. Sometimes all it takes is moving from the general to the specific.
Why are Generalities in Essays Bad?
It's not that generalities in essays are bad, but academic writing requires the student to stretch herself. An essay filled with generalities is bland and doesn't stay with the reader. Both peers and instructors want to read an essay that reflects the student, and specific details can do that.
Creative writing employs the maxim "Show, don't tell." What that means to writers is this: Don't give vague generalities when a specific vivid image will do. If "a picture is worth a thousand words," specificity in an essay is also worth pages of generalities. Readers want specific details that will make the essay stand out.
How Can a Student Change an Essay to be Specific?
The student should first look through his rough draft, spotting areas that are vague or weak. If he has a hard time doing that with his own essay, he should ask a friend or writing coach to help him find those sections. Once he finds areas that could stand some improvement, he needs to ask himself if he could add an example that will take his essay from general to specific or if there are details he can add that will help liven up his paper. Either technique will work, but often it depends on the essay itself.
For instance, if a student writes, "I like the mountains because they are peaceful," readers get an idea of what she is saying, but many people can (and have) said the exact same thing. One way she can move from the general to the specific is by giving an example:
"I like the mountains because they are peaceful. For example, when my family and I went camping in the Gunnison National Forest in Colorado, we stayed at a campground. Hours would go by and there would hardly be any traffic. The soothing sounds of the river helped me drift off to sleep at night, and the temperature was warm, not hot."
Notice that, by giving an example, she also provided specific details. Sometimes just providing details will help the essay move from the general to the specific. For instance, another student might write, "My day doesn't start out right unless I have a cup of coffee." Again, many people have this exact sentiment; what this writer is saying is nothing spectacular. However, he could add details that will help his idea stand out above the crowd:
"My day doesn't start out right unless I have a cup of coffee. Ah, but it's just not any cup of Joe. Its cold water mixed with two scoops of Rainforest Certified Alliance coffee. I drink it in my large black coffee cup with a splash of French vanilla soy creamer and one heaping scoop of turbinado sugar."
Readers now have details that will help this student's once-generic cup of coffee stand out from others.
Aim for Specific Details to Create a Great Essay
Yes, there are many topics that have been written about ad nauseum, but that doesn't mean a student needs to write a vague, general essay. Instead, if a student must write about a topic that isn't inspired, she should find ways to make her writing stand out above others. She can do that by being specific, and she can add examples or details (or both). Readers and instructors will appreciate the attention to detail.
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