From: Dr. Lyle Weis www.telusplanet.net/public/ lyleweis/MainPage.htm
To: Teachers Who Want to Improve Student Writing
Writing Tip of the Day #1: “More Detail!”
Have you ever encouraged your students to improve their stories by urging them to “use more detail”? As teachers we often say this, but why do we still get scenes that seem rushed or vague?
The problem is two-fold: students need to know the “how” and “why” of descriptive writing. In another message, I’ll address the “how,” which has a lot to do with sensory content in writing.
Today, I want to address the challenge of “why” in writing a descriptive passage. For too many student writers, improving a vague scene means simply packing in extras: more adjectives, more adverbs. They don’t know what the passage is supposed to accomplish within the larger story.
If young writers realize that setting should enhance the plot or our understanding of a character or a scene, then their writing improves. Great literary works strive for unity of purpose, and that is what students need to learn how to do in their own creative efforts.
Mr. Beams, my Grade 8 English teacher, taught me this lesson. He had given me a good mark on a creative writing assignment but both he and I knew the story could be better.
“I want to be a writer,” I said. “You said I needed more detail in my scene. How do I do that?”
Mr. Beams studied me. “You need to have purpose in a scene. Use intelligent focus.”
Intelligent focus? I felt a surge of anxiety. What’s that mean?
Reading my expression, he said. “For example, in one scene you give your reader a shopping list of information about this room.” He gestured at our classroom. “Order the details so they actually do something. Start from one side of the room in a general way, then close in on one significant object.”
My story was about a junior high boy who was being intimated by a much larger and aggressive kid in the school. When I re-wrote the scene, the character walks into his classroom, noting the general layout of students and desks, and heads to his own spot near the windows. On the way he sees people, hears snippets of conversation, checks the location of the bully and then settles into his own desk.
After sitting down, he looks out the window where there is freedom, greenery and blue sky. Then, he notices a small movement outside in the corner of the window. A spider has caught a fly in its web and is busily wrapping the dead insect for a snack later. Disheartened, he feels like the dead fly.
The interplay between the action, the character and the small but significant detail of the spider made for a much stronger scene. Mr. Beams knew his stuff.
Suggested task: Try asking your students to create a scene that shows the reader’s imaginative sightline moving through the physical setting and ending with a small but significant focal point. You’ll like the results.