Southwest Tennessee Community College Composition Lessons & Resources John Friedlander
Perhaps the most important aspect of effective writing (and effective speaking as well) is providing effective support for your ideas. Effective support may take the form of examples (real or invented), statistics, quotations, factual details, or other types of evidence. But a consistent characteristic of effective support is that it is specific rather than general. If you can develop the habit of finding specific support for your ideas, your thinking, speaking and writing will all become easier and more successful.
You should understand from your other readings the distinctions between abstract and concrete, and between general and specific. Abstract and general terms are useful for presenting essay ideas (or thesis statements) and paragraph ideas (or topic sentences), but they are too broad and vague to provide useful support. Good support uses concrete terms (appealing directly to the senses) and specific terms (identifying only one item--or only a narrow group of items). You want to fill your body paragraphs with concrete, specific support.
Let's look at an example.
General idea: She treats her brother unkindly.
This statement is general and abstract--the reader can't tell what kind of treatment is involved, or just what "unkindly" means. The statement could serve as a thesis statement or topic sentence, but it is not fully clear or convincing by itself.
1. She taunts him by calling him "Elephant Ears," especially in the presence of his friends.
2. She has repeatedly told him that he is adopted, and not a "real" member of the family.
3. She has invited him for long walks, and then abandoned him in unfamiliar neighborhoods far from their home.
4. She has paid other children to bully and beat him.
5. She once pushed his face into a bowl of ammonia.
Notice that these statements are concrete and specific--though #4 is less specific than the others. Although the original idea ("She treats her brother unkindly.") was not fully clear or convincing by itself, the supporting specifics succeed in making the idea both clear and convincing--the reader knows what the writer means by "treats unkindly," and the reader is convinced that the girl involved here really does treat her brother unkindly.
AN EXERCISE FOR YOU
You can develop a clearer sense of supporting specifics through regular practice, following the model you've already seen. First write down a general idea or conclusion--one that could serve as a paragraph idea, but which requires additional clarification and support. Then invent and write at least four supporting specifics. Write each supporting specific in a separate sentence, readily understood by any reader. The specifics need not follow a particular order; they need not be interrelated or consistent in tone. But each supporting specific must:
a) directly support the general idea [relevance]
b) include direct appeal to the senses [concreteness]
(You should be able to identify the sense involved--will the reader see something, or hear something,
or feel or taste or smell something?)
c) be sufficiently narrow to be fully understandable and convincing by itself
(It should have the force of fact rather than opinion.)
All this description and instruction makes this practice seem more complicated than it is--if you look at the sample above and follow its pattern, the exercise should be fairly easy to do. [Note: I've included a few examples in the exercise, but you'll learn more if you come up with a few specifics of your own before you look at the examples.]
Here are some general ideas to get you started:
1. The old cafe was a depressing place.examples
2. Her brother is creepy. examples
3. This student has a bad attitude. examples
4. This class is unpleasant.
5. My car is falling apart.
6. The company seems indifferent to its employees.
7. Americans are generally wasteful.
8. Memphis drivers are horrible.
9. Marriage has had a positive effect on him/her.
10. This teacher is incompetent.
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