Writing Technique: Using concrete details
I am experimenting in writing workshop. (In some ways, writing workshop always feels like a wonderful, high-flying experiment, doesn’t it?)
I am teaching a unit based on a technique that crosses genre — using evidence to illustrate and support the writer’s purpose. And I’m doing so with four mentor texts that will remain consistent for the whole unit.
Two weeks ago, I showed how I use these mentor texts to talk about how writers find their genre by beginning with their ideas.
Today, I am using these same mentor texts to show how writers use concrete, specific details as a type of evidence.
How I Use It:
These mentor texts are an extension of my mini-lesson on concrete details. Borrowing Allison’s definition, I share that:
name objects, people, and places
use specific, concrete details to describe colors, shapes, sizes, textures, and other qualities
concrete means something you can perceive through one of your senses
- use sensory images to show what they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste
Then, we take a look at how this works in our whole class read aloud text, Charlotte’s Web:
Now that school was over, Fern visited the barn almost every day, to sit quietly on her stool. The animals treated her as an equal. The sheep lay calmly at her feet.
Around the first of July, the work horses were hitched to the mowing machine, and Mr. Zuckerman climbed into the seat and drove into the field. All morning you could hear the rattle of the machine as it went round and round, while the tall grass fell down behind the cutter bar in long green swathes. Next day, if there was no thunder shower, all hands would help rake and pitch and load, and the hay would be hauled to the barn in the high hay wagon, with Fern and Avery riding at the top of the load. Then the hay would be hoisted, sweet and warm, into the big loft, until the whole barn seemed like a wonderful bed of timothy and clover. It was fine to jump in, and perfect to hide in. And sometimes Avery would find a little grass snake in the hay, and would add it to the other things in his pocket.
Early summer days are a jubilee time for birds. In the fields, around the house, in the barn, in the woods, in the swamp — everywhere love and songs and nests and eggs. From the edge of the woods, the white-throated sparrow (which must come all the way from Boston) calls, “Oh Peabody Peabody Peabody!” On an apple bough, the phoebe teeter and wags its tail and says, “Phoebe, phoe-bee!” The song sparrow, who knows how brief and lovely life is, says “Sweet, sweet, interlude; sweet, sweet, sweet interlude.” If you enter the barn, the swallows swoop down from their nests and scold. “Cheeky, cheeky!” they say.
As a group, we highlight concrete details and, more importantly, discuss what they add to the story — why does White bother to include them at all? Are they a waste of ink or are they really accomplishing something in the text?
Then we go to the mentor texts, looking for new examples. As you would expect, we find more in the narrative and in the This I Believe essay than in the review and the editorial. We talk about the differences in the genres, why concrete details happen more naturally in narratives, and how they can make sense in other genres.
Students immediately go back into their drafts, searching for places they can change vague descriptions into concrete details.