“She’s always there for me.” “Society should take care of children.” “It’s a good thing to be interesting.” “People should know better.” These are the types of general statements that appear frequently in student writing. In fact, I might get the same basic sentences in several different student papers. They are so generic that they can be used in many contexts—and they are essentially drab and meaningless. This type of general and vague writing shows students’ thinking to be vague and superficial.
Good writing, writing that people enjoy reading, moves away from these general statements to descriptions and words that readers can relate to because they can see what the writer means. Good writing replaces general terms like there, society, thing and people with concrete, sensual descriptions. Writers are often directed to show not tell. Here’s an example:
General Statement: Mary always helps her friends.
More specific: When her friend Barb was sick, Mary helped take care of her.
Very specific: When her friend Barb was struck with brain cancer, Mary went to her house each week to give Barb’s husband and two children a night away from their caretaking. As Barb’s condition got worse, Mary spoon-fed her pudding, the only food she could swallow, and adjusted her morphine levels.
In the moment: Mary cradled Barb’s head in her arms as she dipped the spoon into the pudding bowl. She spooned small amounts of pudding into her friend’s mouth, trying to appear happy and hopeful in spite of the brain cancer that was taking Barb away from her family and friends. Each time Barb moaned, Mary felt sick with grief. All she could do was to check the morphine level and give her another dose.
A lot of student writing is made up of statements like the first two above. The very specific example shows the reader what exactly was involved in the caretaking and gives a detailed account of what happened. The final example puts the reader into the scene, able to see and feel what the narrator sees and feels—and it engages the reader’s imagination and emotions. Good writing moves back and forth along a spectrum from general to in-the-moment detail. It balances what the writer wants to say with what the reader can relate to and use. However, if writing stays at the generic level, neither reader nor writer has a chance to achieve any depth of knowledge.