Breakthrough moment: How to teach what “be specific” means

I think I’m finally on to something

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Photo: Pixabay

Be specific!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written that on my students’ essays, poems, and narratives. They know the importance of adding relevant details and crystal clear descriptions to their writing. We talk about it all the time, after all. In fact, “add more detail” and “be more descriptive” are the top two comments I hear them saying to each other during peer review groups. However, for some reason, kids still often neglect to be specific.

Maybe they don’t recognize “vagueness” in their own writing. Maybe they’re in a rush and don’t see the value in taking the extra time that being specific takes. Maybe it’s late the night before their essay is due and, as a result, they’ve lowered their standards. The loosey-goosey thoughts that make it into their first drafts—however general and lackluster— are good enough to turn in at the last minute. Whatever.

Last fall, I came upon a chapter in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories and discovered a helpful section on the merits of being specific in writing. By “being specific” Roorbach means putting a name to the objects, things and people in our writing.

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This is an awesome book that I’ve found helpful (like REALLY helpful) in my classroom.

For example, if one mentions a tree, Roorbach suggests being exact. Is it an oak? maple? pine? If possible, he suggests going further. Is it a chinquapin oak? silver-leaf maple? lodgepole pine? If one mentions Dad’s car, Roorbach suggests identifying the exact car: Dad’s brown 1995 Subaru Forester or his sleek, brand-new silver Prius.

Roorbach stresses that “naming is knowing.” Putting a clear and precise label to the objects in our writing lends credibility and a subtle authenticism to our writing. (He also discusses how determining the exact name of something—a particular flower, for example—may help writers discover unexpected revelations about their pasts. Seriously, check out this book!)

I notice that in my own writing I will often add the specific labels to things on the later drafts of a piece. I often do this work intentionally, taking care to notice generalities as I read and re-read, and re-read again. It’s amazing how much richer and concrete and visible my writing is when I follow Roorbach’s advice and specifically name things in my writing.

So with Roorbach’s book in hand, I created a mini-lesson for class. Maybe this time, I thought, with the help of Roorbach’s down-to-earth and eloquent text, students will understand what I mean when I write “Be specific” in the margins of their papers.

For the mini-lesson, I decided to read aloud from Roorbach’s “Naming is Knowing” exercise. Everyone agreed that the specific examples given in the text were effective revisions of the more general originals. I asked the kids to keep this in mind as they wrote that day… “Don’t just say that you put on your clothes; be specific. Name the clothes. Say you put on your bright white NASA hoodie and a faded pair of jeans. ”

About two days later, a student named Jacob dropped a poem into my second drafts box during writer’s workshop. I read it, noticing that it was about a trip to Florida he took last summer with his family. The poem mentioned finding “a coin,” “finding “a food,” and visiting “the museum” and finding “something” there.

Here we go again, I thought. More vague writing.

I asked Jacob, “Remember when we talked a couple of days ago about how it makes sense to be as specific as possible and put a name to things when we write so readers can visualize our stories better?” He nodded. I inquired what kind of coin he found; he replied “a Spanish medallion.” I asked him what exactly he found at the museum; he said “a Honus Wagner baseball card.” I asked him about the food mentioned in the poem; he replied “chicken Alfredo.”

Try naming those things in your poem, I suggested. He returned several minutes later with another draft, this one much more specific, much more visual, and much more effective.

“Yes! You did it!” I told him after reading his revision. “This is what we were talking about!”

I asked him if I could use his drafts in class the next day to show everyone how much more visual his second draft was. He agreed and printed copies of his poem’s “before and after” versions.

I placed them side by side on a sheet of paper and ran off copies for everyone. The following day we revisited our “naming” lesson and with Jacob’s poems in front of them, everyone readily was able to see the difference between vague writing and specific writing: it all has to do with naming things.

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The next day, I asked Jacob to read both poems aloud. After that, we all discussed how effective the changes were and the consensus was that the “after” version was definitely the draft we all preferred. Why? Because we could visualize the Spanish medallion (someone said it was probably all crusty and gross) much more clearly than we could visualize a coin. We could taste the chicken Alfredo. And of course, we all knew that a Lamborghini is the ultimate fancy car.

Of course, being seventh-graders, the added details spurred conversations about coins that kids had found or lost. Practically every kid in the room said they loved chicken Alfredo. I guess all that conversation proves that specific writing resonates. Being specific helps readers connect better with the writing and, in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

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I made this slide on my Smartboard using a quote from the exercise on “Naming is Knowing” in Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories.

One student asked,  “What if the extra detail seems distracting?” I acknowledged her smart observation and advised her to play around with being specific. Yes, it’s entirely possible to have misplaced detail, I told her. If that’s the case, she as the writer then has a decision to make. For example, if it seems distracting and irrelevant to know that you wore a bright white NASA hoodie, then leave it out and go general. But try naming and being specific first, I told her because you never know until you try. Plus, you can always change it back later, I added.

I feel as if I’ve finally hit on something when it comes to teaching kids to write specifically: it’s about naming things. Since teaching this “Naming is Knowing” mini-lesson—with the help of Roorbach and Jacob’s examples— my students better understand how to add relevant, visual details and names to the people and objects in their writing. It’s nice to know that they finally understand what “Be specific” really means.


Thanks for reading again this week! Click “like” if you learned something with this post and feel free to follow my blog for more news from my classroom. How do you teach your students to be specific in their writing?

Outlines have a time and place; a personal essay isn’t one of them.

One of my students is learning that “Discovery is the thing.”

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This book contains nuggets of writing wisdom that make great mini-lessons in my Writer’s Workshop sessions. Another one to be discussed in another post: the importance of being specific.

Last week, I wrote about Writer’s Workshop and how I am really enjoying it this fall in my middle school language arts classes. I have a few books that I pull ideas from to use for mini-lessons before the kids transition to working on their writing projects.

One of those books is Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories. It’s a book I ordered a year or so ago for ideas on memoir and biographical writing. I have found several eye-opening sections in the book that I have shared with my students. One of these points we’ve discussed is the value of digression in writing. To digress, Roorbach recommends writing without a plan, of allowing your writing to reveal your thinking on a topic.

In class, we read this excerpt:

“Part of what’s in your head is going to be stories, and when you start telling stories from your life, your life itself becomes evidence. The personal essayist examines the evidence until it’s plain to both reader and writer just what’s evident. Abandon the outline, all ye who enter here! Discovery is the thing. Too firm a plan, and you miss the digression that takes you where you didn’t know you wanted to go.”

Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach with Kristen Keckler, PhD; Ch. 1

Kids usually breathe a sigh of relief when they find out they don’t have to use an outline. And when we read this in class, I clarify that there are indeed times when an outline will help them. For example, outlines are useful when their writing is an assemblage of pertinent facts and details that need organizing or when they’re having trouble getting started.

However, for some types of writing, outlines may actually hinder the thought process that writing spurs. That’s what Roorbach is getting at. Following an outline may constrain a writer’s thinking and inadvertently cause her to shut down her analysis of a life situation or recollection of a life event.

One of the projects on our Writer’s Workshop assignment list is a memoir or personal narrative essay. I have one student in particular (I’ll call her Camille) who I can tell is learning how the act of writing is helping her to define and refine her thinking and stance on a very controversial topic.

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To observe Camille intentionally and willingly struggle through her draft means she is growing as a writer, thinker, and learner.

She’s been working on her essay for a few days now, and I can tell as she works alone at a table in the back of the room, she is muddling through her ideas. She is starting and stopping, backing up again, and then restarting a sputtering paragraph to finally blaze through it as she clarifies and discovers how she feels on her topic.

She told me on Friday at the end of class, “It’s so hard to write about this because I have to think about every possible perspective and there are so many ways to look at it.” It’s obvious that Camille is learning that “writing is thinking.”

For me, this is one of the most difficult things about writing: giving myself the time to discover my own thinking. Most of the time, I want to get the piece done. I don’t want to spend the time lost in thought and unsure of how I feel. I want to say what I know and move on.

Those hours of mental wandering used to feel like torture to me (and still do, at times), but I’m learning to accept that this is writing. I must allow myself to not know where a piece is going and to just write, knowing that clarity in some measure will result… eventually.

Seeing Camille learn this writing truth and find that “discovery is the thing” is a huge personal accomplishment for me as a writing teacher. To observe Camille intentionally and willingly struggle through her draft means she is growing as a writer, thinker, and learner. Understanding that “writing is thinking” will serve her well as she continues into high school and beyond.


Thanks for reading! There are other similar viewpoints to Roorbach’s on outlines and other forms of prewriting. I’ll discuss another teacher/author’s ideas on this topic in an upcoming post. Click like if you found this interesting and follow me to get that upcoming post.