Big picture elements of writing are the things that are diffuse throughout a piece of writing: main idea, focus, organizational patterns, transitions, large-scale rhetorical devices.
Closeup elements of writing are the things you can point to on the page (or screen of writing): things like sentence fluency and sentence effects, specific word choices, figurative language, and details. Details most of all.
Big picture elements are the abstract ideas of a piece and how they are presented and arranged. Closeup elements are how a writer illustrates or supports those abstract ideas. If you’ve ever read a piece of writing that was all abstractions and no illustrations or support, you know it can be hard going indeed. I once read a book by theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich, and he wrote almost completely in abstractions – no word pictures, no stories, descriptions, or metaphors to illustrate his points. I managed to slog through it, but only by forcing myself to focus. I would get glassy-eyed and start to nod off. Worse, I tend to remember the books I read fairly well, even years later – but I have virtually no recollection of his book. I believe that some of the ideas struck me, but they didn’t stick. There was nothing to hang those abstract ideas on later.
The analogy I use with my students to illustrate this idea about the importance of details is one borrowed partially from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The second section of the book is titled “The Sieve and the Sand.” I tell my students that when people read your writing, your abstract ideas are like sticky sand and your concrete details are like rocks and seashells. When your writing falls through the sieve of your readers’ minds, abstractions fall away, forgotten. Unless, that is, those abstract ideas happen to be stuck onto concrete rocks and seashells – fastened to specific images, illustrations, stories, descriptions, or examples.
Think about anything you’ve read in the past few months that has stuck with you, fiction or non-fiction. What tends to stay with us are images in our minds or vivid sensory details. I recently read Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and have vivid images and sensory details of an alligator show and a trek through the Everglades in my head. I read A Prayer for the Crown Shy by Becky Chambers even more recently and have vivid images of Mosscap the robot and Dex the tea-monk wandering around their planet through forests and villages. I will sometimes demonstrate the power of images in class as a school year goes into its third month and beyond. I’ll ask questions like “What did the forest look like to the girl who fell out of the airplane?” Many students will remember that it looked to her like cauliflower. “What did the dad’s garage smell like in Making My Escape?” Oil and stale beer. “What did some college students not know how to do in the article ‘Professor Caveman’?” How to break an egg.
Details aren’t just optional fluff. They are essential.
The Closeup of writing should be all about being visual, being vivid. Yet since 2010, many if not most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which focus on the idea of “writing to text” – using “text evidence” from articles to write essays that are “research simulations.” My state, Florida, adopted the Common Core State Standards, then re-labeled them the Florida Standards (in ELA, they were the Language Arts Florida Standards, or LAFS! Funny, am I right?). So for the past decade or so, our schools’ writing instruction has tended to focus on teaching to the test, which meant Writing To Text. And although the rubric for the test rates students on both evidence AND elaboration, the elaboration tended to be downplayed in favor of text evidence. In many cases, student have come to view writing as the act of stringing quotes together in the format of a five paragraph essay.
This, to put it mildly, not writing. It is a parody of actual writing.
Effective writing is vivid writing, not simply writing that uses “text evidence” as its only elaboration. Text evidence can be one kind of elaboration. Read current non-fiction, and you’ll see source after source cited. So far this year I’ve read several non-fiction books, including Think Again by Adam Grant, Trust and Inspire by Stephen M.R. Covey, and (currently) Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright. They all cite sources as evidence, but they also elaborate – they tell stories (often personal), they use figurative language, they describe, they illustrate, they use sensory detail. But too often all of those types of detail are forgotten in our desire to raise scores on “writing to text” scores.
Perhaps some forms of academic writing want only abstractions and text evidence. But most of our students are not going to be writing in academic forms for most of their lives. And academic writing, let’s face it, can be awfully dull. It is not written to engage readers. Most writing, real life writing, should be.
We need to give our students practice with elaborating, not just citing other people’s writing. Give students exercises that enable them to tell personal stories. What’s the scariest or funniest thing that ever happened to you? Write about a time you learned something difficult. Write about the most fun you’ve ever had. Write about the future you hope for yourself.
Give students chances to describe things. What’s the worst place on our campus? What’s your favorite place on our campus? Describe a place you have visited and would like to go to again. Describe a place you never want to go again. Describe how a place might be made better. Describe how students look in a class they like versus a class they hate.
Give students a chance to create metaphors. School is a… The human mind is a… Life is a…
Let students play with details, with images. Help them to take abstract ideas and make them concrete. Teach them about strong verbs and concrete nouns. Have a Picture This! contest. Give students a telling abstract sentence and have them write one sentence that shows rather than tells the idea. You give them The car was a piece of junk and they might write The car’s engine block sat outside rusting away while the body of the car had too many dents to count and the paint was scuffed all around. You give them The hallway was crowded and they might come up with As I walked through the hallway, I was bombarded by the crowds – couples canoodling like it was their honeymoon, dorks being shoved in lockers, jocks yelling and shoving everybody around.
Writing with details and stories is not only more effective, it’s also more fun.
In Florida, despite all the political machinations going on in our state’s educational system (everything from “Don’t Say Gay” to anti-CRT revisionist history to book banning to military personnel and their spouses being invited into the class room), we English teachers are in a very interesting position this year. We have left behind the Common Core/Florida Standards and adopted new standards, the B.E.S.T. Standards. I don’t have time to give a review here, but I have to say that they at least emphasize elaboration, including a list of different types of elaboration. There will be a writing field test in April in some schools, but we essentially are teaching writing this year without knowing what our writing test will look like. This is a fantastic opportunity, I think, to rethink writing. The new writing standards don’t offer anything earthshattering. Write in narrative, expository, and argumentative modes? Who would have guessed? But with no test to teach to – how might we rethink how we teach those forms?
And so perhaps its a chance for us to stop thinking about what full-proof instructions they need to follow to pass the writing test and to instead think about what our students need to be effective writers in any situation.
One of the things all writers need is the ability to be vivid, to tell stories, to create word pictures that stick.
When you have narration, description, dialogue, metaphors, similes, hyperbole, hypothetical scenarios, sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and anecdotes at your disposal… why would you ever limit yourself to text-evidence?
Images via www.mrfitz.com. Created by David Lee Finkle.
How do you help students create vivid, visual, concrete details that make their abstract ideas come to life? Connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mrfitzcomics
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