It’s In the Details

It's in the Details

Successful Writing: It’s in the Details

Before a writer starts pecking at the keyboard or scratching with a pen on paper, she needs to have a clear idea of what she wants her readers to understand. If you are writing a paper for a professor or your boss, think about the fact that they most likely already know more than you do about your subject. They and other readers don’t want you to just regurgitate what they’ve already heard or read someplace else. They might not agree with what you say in your paper or report, but they’ll respect your ideas if you provide support for your ideas.

Readers want proof that you understand the material you are covering. Professors and bosses want proof that you understand the material they have covered with you and that you are able to use or apply this information and go beyond what you’ve heard or read. Therefore, before you begin, ask yourself, “What point am I trying to make.” Avoid making your piece an information dumping ground.

Whatever your assignment – a how-to paper, a description, an explanation, an evaluation, a comparison or contrast — you will need to uncover the main point you want to make and then support it with specific details to prove that you are correct. Concrete details are used to explain, expand on, and develop the general main idea of your paper. These details provide the answers to questions like who, what, when, how, why, how much, or how many. So avoid general words like a lot, nice, big, and small in the body of your paragraphs. Use statistics, quotes, facts, anecdotes or stories, definitions, examples, names, numbers, and the five senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing) to add life and originality to your argument.

Don’t use a general word like “flower;” call it a rose or an iris or a dahlia. Instead of saying “a long time ago,” use a number to give your idea weight. Was it a century ago, a millennium, a week? By the way, how much is “a lot”? If you tell me you studied a lot for a test, I might think you stayed up all night. Actually, you spent only an hour skimming your notes, and you said “a lot” because usually you just give your notes the once over in the hallway right before class starts.

Imagine your assignment is to discuss the three main benefits of eating locally grown food. After brainstorming and thinking, researching and reading, you decide they are: save the planet, better taste and nutrition, and helping your community. Let’s just use the first point as an example, plugging in some specifics to show that eating a diet made up of foods grown within 100 miles of your home will help to prevent wars over resources and reverse global climate change because local food doesn’t have to be shipped so far, thus saving oil. A study in Iowa found that a regional diet consumed 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet based on food shipped across the country. The ingredients for a typical British meal, sourced locally, traveled 66 times fewer “food miles.”

Working to find the specific details that support your arguments will give your main point legs to stand on, and you’ll earn a great grade or accolades from your boss, too.