General To Specific Essay Topics

Introduction

Language may be our most powerful tool. We use it to understand our world through listening and reading, and to communicate our own feelings, needs and desires through speaking and writing. With strong language skills, we have a much better chance of understanding and being understood, and of getting what we want and need from those around us.

There are many ways to label or classify language as we learn to better control it—by levels, such as formal, informal, colloquial or slang; by tones, such as stiff, pompous, conversational, friendly, direct, impersonal; even by functions, such as noun, verb, adjective. I want to introduce you to a powerful way of classifying language—by levels of abstraction or concreteness or generality or specificity (any one of those four terms really implies the others).

Approaching language in these terms is valuable because it helps us recognize what kinds of language are more likely to be understood and what kinds are more likely to be misunderstood. The more abstract or general your language is, the more unclear and boring it will be. The more concrete and specific your language is, the more clear and vivid it will be.

Let's look at these different types of language.

Abstract and Concrete Terms

Abstract terms refer to ideas or concepts; they have no physical referents.

[Stop right here and reread that definition. Many readers will find it both vague and boring. Even if you find it interesting, it may be hard to pin down the meaning. To make the meaning of this abstract language clearer, we need some examples.]

Examples of abstract terms include love, success, freedom, good, moral, democracy, and any -ism (chauvinism, Communism, feminism, racism, sexism). These terms are fairly common and familiar, and because we recognize them we may imagine that we understand them—but we really can't, because the meanings won't stay still.

Take love as an example. You've heard and used that word since you were three or four years old. Does it mean to you now what it meant to you when you were five? when you were ten? when you were fourteen (!)? I'm sure you'll share my certainty that the word changes meaning when we marry, when we divorce, when we have children, when we look back at lost parents or spouses or children. The word stays the same, but the meaning keeps changing.

If I say, "love is good," you'll probably assume that you understand, and be inclined to agree with me. You may change your mind, though, if you realize I mean that "prostitution should be legalized" [heck, love is good!].

How about freedom? The word is familiar enough, but when I say, "I want freedom," what am I talking about? divorce? self-employment? summer vacation? paid-off debts? my own car? looser pants? The meaning of freedom won't stay still. Look back at the other examples I gave you, and you'll see the same sorts of problems.

Does this mean we shouldn't use abstract terms? No—we need abstract terms. We need to talk about ideas and concepts, and we need terms that represent them. But we must understand how imprecise their meanings are, how easily they can be differently understood, and how tiring and boring long chains of abstract terms can be. Abstract terms are useful and necessary when we want to name ideas (as we do in thesis statements and some paragraph topic sentences), but they're not likely to make points clear or interesting by themselves.

Concrete terms refer to objects or events that are available to the senses. [This is directly opposite to abstract terms, which name things that are not available to the senses.] Examples of concrete terms include spoon, table, velvet eye patch, nose ring, sinus mask, green, hot, walking. Because these terms refer to objects or events we can see or hear or feel or taste or smell, their meanings are pretty stable. If you ask me what I mean by the word spoon, I can pick up a spoon and show it to you. [I can't pick up a freedom and show it to you, or point to a small democracy crawling along a window sill. I can measure sand and oxygen by weight and volume, but I can't collect a pound of responsibility or a liter of moral outrage.]

While abstract terms like love change meaning with time and circumstances, concrete terms like spoon stay pretty much the same. Spoon and hot and puppy mean pretty much the same to you now as they did when you were four.

You may think you understand and agree with me when I say, "We all want success." But surely we don't all want the same things. Success means different things to each of us, and you can't be sure of what I mean by that abstract term. On the other hand, if I say "I want a gold Rolex on my wrist and a Mercedes in my driveway," you know exactly what I mean (and you know whether you want the same things or different things). Can you see that concrete terms are clearer and more interesting than abstract terms?

If you were a politician, you might prefer abstract terms to concrete terms. "We'll direct all our considerable resources to satisfying the needs of our constituents" sounds much better than "I'll spend $10 million of your taxes on a new highway that will help my biggest campaign contributor." But your goal as a writer is not to hide your real meanings, but to make them clear, so you'll work to use fewer abstract terms and more concrete terms.


General and Specific Terms

General terms and specific terms are not opposites, as abstract and concrete terms are; instead, they are the different ends of a range of terms. General terms refer to groups; specific terms refer to individuals—but there's room in between. Let's look at an example.

Furniture is a general term; it includes within it many different items. If I ask you to form an image of furniture, it won't be easy to do. Do you see a department store display room? a dining room? an office? Even if you can produce a distinct image in your mind, how likely is it that another reader will form a very similar image? Furniture is a concrete term (it refers to something we can see and feel), but its meaning is still hard to pin down, because the group is so large. Do you have positive or negative feelings toward furniture? Again, it's hard to develop much of a response, because the group represented by this general term is just too large.

We can make the group smaller with the less general term, chair. This is still pretty general (that is, it still refers to a group rather than an individual), but it's easier to picture a chair than it is to picture furniture.

Shift next to rocking chair. Now the image is getting clearer, and it's easier to form an attitude toward the thing. The images we form are likely to be fairly similar, and we're all likely to have some similar associations (comfort, relaxation, calm), so this less general or more specific term communicates more clearly than the more general or less specific terms before it.

We can become more and more specific. It can be a La-Z-Boy rocker-recliner. It can be a green velvet La-Z-Boy rocker recliner. It can be a lime green velvet La-Z-Boy rocker recliner with a cigarette burn on the left arm and a crushed jelly doughnut pressed into the back edge of the seat cushion. By the time we get to the last description, we have surely reached the individual, a single chair. Note how easy it is to visualize this chair, and how much attitude we can form about it.

The more you rely on general terms, the more your writing is likely to be vague and dull. As your language becomes more specific, though, your meanings become clearer and your writing becomes more interesting.

Does this mean you have to cram your writing with loads of detailed description? No. First, you don't always need modifiers to identify an individual: Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa are specifics; so are Bob's Camaro and the wart on Zelda's chin. Second, not everything needs to be individual: sometimes we need to know that Fred sat in a chair, but we don't care what the chair looked like.


Summing Up

If you think back to what you've just read, chances are you'll most easily remember and most certainly understand the gold Rolex, the Mercedes, and the lime green La-Z-Boy rocker-recliner. Their meanings are clear and they bring images with them (we more easily recall things that are linked with a sense impression, which is why it's easier to remember learning how to ride a bike or swim than it is to remember learning about the causes of the Civil War).

We experience the world first and most vividly through our senses. From the beginning, we sense hot, cold, soft, rough, loud. Our early words are all concrete: nose, hand, ear, cup, Mommy. We teach concrete terms: "Where's baby's mouth?" "Where's baby's foot?"—not, "Where's baby's democracy?" Why is it that we turn to abstractions and generalizations when we write?

I think part of it is that we're trying to offer ideas or conclusions. We've worked hard for them, we're proud of them, they're what we want to share. After Mary tells you that you're her best friend, you hear her tell Margaret that she really hates you. Mrs. Warner promises to pay you extra for raking her lawn after cutting it, but when you're finished she says it should be part of the original price, and she won't give you the promised money. Your dad promises to pick you up at four o'clock, but leaves you standing like a fool on the corner until after six. Your boss promises you a promotion, then gives it instead to his boss's nephew. From these and more specific experiences, you learn that you can't always trust everybody. Do you tell your child those stories? More probably you just tell your child, "You can't always trust everybody."

It took a lot of concrete, specific experiences to teach you that lesson, but you try to pass it on with a few general words. You may think you're doing it right, giving your child the lesson without the hurt you went through. But the hurts teach the lesson, not the general terms. "You can't always trust everybody" may be a fine main idea for an essay or paragraph, and it may be all that you want your child or your reader to grasp—but if you want to make that lesson clear, you'll have to give your child or your reader the concrete, specific experiences.

What principles discussed on this page are at work in the following excerpt from Jeff Bigger's essay, Searching for El Chapareke?

HIS WAS THE DAY the canyon walls of Cusarare, a Tarahumara Indian village tucked into the Sierra Madres of Chihuahua in northern Mexico, bloomed with women in colorful skirts, legions of children trailed by dogs, men in their white shirts and sombreros, all cascading down the pencil-thin trails toward the plaza. The women — shifting babies saddled on their backs in rebozos — sat in groups by the mission walls, wordless for hours, drinking the weekly Coke, watching as the faithful went to attend mass, young men shot hoops, and the older men hovered around benches at the back of the plaza, waiting for the weekly outdoor meeting of the community cooperative. Pigs wandered down the road in idle joy, and the dogs fought on cue outside the small shop.

You can check out this principle in the textbooks you read and the lectures you listen to. If you find yourself bored or confused, chances are you're getting generalizations and abstractions. [This is almost inevitable—the purpose of the texts and the teachers is to give you general principles!] You'll find your interest and your understanding increase when the author or teacher starts offering specifics. One of the most useful questions you can ask of an unclear presentation (including your own) is, "Can you give me an example?"

Your writing (whether it's in an essay, a letter, a memorandum, a report, an advertisement, or a resume) will be clearer, more interesting, and better remembered if it is dominated by concrete and specific terms, and if it keeps abstract and general terms to a minimum. Go ahead and use abstract and general terms in your thesis statement and your topic sentences. But make the development concrete and specific.


A Final Note Pointing Elsewhere

Sometimes students think that this discussion of types of language is about vocabulary, but it's not. You don't need a fancy vocabulary to come up with bent spoon or limping dog or Mary told Margaret she hates me. It's not about imagination, either. If you have reached any kind of a reasoned conclusion, you must have had or read about or heard about relevant experiences. Finding concrete specifics doesn't require a big vocabulary or a vivid imagination, just the willingness to recall what you already know. If you really can't find any examples or specifics to support your general conclusion, chances are you don't really know what you're talking about (and we are all guilty of that more than we care to admit).

Where do these concrete specifics emerge in the writing process? You should gather many concrete specifics in the prewriting steps of invention and discovery. If you have many concrete specifics at hand before you organize or draft, you're likely to think and write more easily and accurately. It's easier to write well when you're closer to knowing what you're talking about.

You will certainly come up with more concrete specifics as you draft, and more as you revise, and maybe still more as you edit. But you'll be a better writer if you can gather some concrete specifics at the very start.

After you have read and thought about this material, you should have a fairly clear idea of what concrete specifics are and why you want them. Your next step will be to practice.

Paragraphs & Topic Sentences

A paragraph is a series of sentences that are organized and coherent, and are all related to a single topic. Almost every piece of writing you do that is longer than a few sentences should be organized into paragraphs. This is because paragraphs show a reader where the subdivisions of an essay begin and end, and thus help the reader see the organization of the essay and grasp its main points.

Paragraphs can contain many different kinds of information. A paragraph could contain a series of brief examples or a single long illustration of a general point. It might describe a place, character, or process; narrate a series of events; compare or contrast two or more things; classify items into categories; or describe causes and effects. Regardless of the kind of information they contain, all paragraphs share certain characteristics. One of the most important of these is a topic sentence.

TOPIC SENTENCES

A well-organized paragraph supports or develops a single controlling idea, which is expressed in a sentence called the topic sentence. A topic sentence has several important functions: it substantiates or supports an essay’s thesis statement; it unifies the content of a paragraph and directs the order of the sentences; and it advises the reader of the subject to be discussed and how the paragraph will discuss it. Readers generally look to the first few sentences in a paragraph to determine the subject and perspective of the paragraph. That’s why it’s often best to put the topic sentence at the very beginning of the paragraph. In some cases, however, it’s more effective to place another sentence before the topic sentence—for example, a sentence linking the current paragraph to the previous one, or one providing background information.

Although most paragraphs should have a topic sentence, there are a few situations when a paragraph might not need a topic sentence. For example, you might be able to omit a topic sentence in a paragraph that narrates a series of events, if a paragraph continues developing an idea that you introduced (with a topic sentence) in the previous paragraph, or if all the sentences and details in a paragraph clearly refer—perhaps indirectly—to a main point. The vast majority of your paragraphs, however, should have a topic sentence.

PARAGRAPH STRUCTURE

Most paragraphs in an essay have a three-part structure—introduction, body, and conclusion. You can see this structure in paragraphs whether they are narrating, describing, comparing, contrasting, or analyzing information. Each part of the paragraph plays an important role in communicating your meaning to your reader.

Introduction: the first section of a paragraph; should include the topic sentence and any other sentences at the beginning of the paragraph that give background information or provide a transition.

Body: follows the introduction; discusses the controlling idea, using facts, arguments, analysis, examples, and other information.

Conclusion: the final section; summarizes the connections between the information discussed in the body of the paragraph and the paragraph’s controlling idea.

The following paragraph illustrates this pattern of organization. In this paragraph the topic sentence and concluding sentence (CAPITALIZED) both help the reader keep the paragraph’s main point in mind.

SCIENTISTS HAVE LEARNED TO SUPPLEMENT THE SENSE OF SIGHT IN NUMEROUS WAYS. In front of the tiny pupil of the eye they put, on Mount Palomar, a great monocle 200 inches in diameter, and with it see 2000 times farther into the depths of space. Or they look through a small pair of lenses arranged as a microscope into a drop of water or blood, and magnify by as much as 2000 diameters the living creatures there, many of which are among man’s most dangerous enemies. Or, if we want to see distant happenings on earth, they use some of the previously wasted electromagnetic waves to carry television images which they re-create as light by whipping tiny crystals on a screen with electrons in a vacuum. Or they can bring happenings of long ago and far away as colored motion pictures, by arranging silver atoms and color-absorbing molecules to force light waves into the patterns of original reality. Or if we want to see into the center of a steel casting or the chest of an injured child, they send the information on a beam of penetrating short-wave X rays, and then convert it back into images we can see on a screen or photograph. THUS ALMOST EVERY TYPE OF ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION YET DISCOVERED HAS BEEN USED TO EXTEND OUR SENSE OF SIGHT IN SOME WAY.

George Harrison, “Faith and the Scientist”

COHERENCE

In a coherent paragraph, each sentence relates clearly to the topic sentence or controlling idea, but there is more to coherence than this. If a paragraph is coherent, each sentence flows smoothly into the next without obvious shifts or jumps. A coherent paragraph also highlights the ties between old information and new information to make the structure of ideas or arguments clear to the reader.

Along with the smooth flow of sentences, a paragraph’s coherence may also be related to its length. If you have written a very long paragraph, one that fills a double-spaced typed page, for example, you should check it carefully to see if it should start a new paragraph where the original paragraph wanders from its controlling idea. On the other hand, if a paragraph is very short (only one or two sentences, perhaps), you may need to develop its controlling idea more thoroughly, or combine it with another paragraph.

A number of other techniques that you can use to establish coherence in paragraphs are described below.

Repeat key words or phrases. Particularly in paragraphs in which you define or identify an important idea or theory, be consistent in how you refer to it. This consistency and repetition will bind the paragraph together and help your reader understand your definition or description.

Create parallel structures. Parallel structures are created by constructing two or more phrases or sentences that have the same grammatical structure and use the same parts of speech. By creating parallel structures you make your sentences clearer and easier to read. In addition, repeating a pattern in a series of consecutive sentences helps your reader see the connections between ideas. In the paragraph above about scientists and the sense of sight, several sentences in the body of the paragraph have been constructed in a parallel way. The parallel structures (which have been emphasized) help the reader see that the paragraph is organized as a set of examples of a general statement.

Be consistent in point of view, verb tense, and number. Consistency in point of view, verb tense, and number is a subtle but important aspect of coherence. If you shift from the more personal "you" to the impersonal “one,” from past to present tense, or from “a man” to “they,” for example, you make your paragraph less coherent. Such inconsistencies can also confuse your reader and make your argument more difficult to follow.

Use transition words or phrases between sentences and between paragraphs. Transitional expressions emphasize the relationships between ideas, so they help readers follow your train of thought or see connections that they might otherwise miss or misunderstand. The following paragraph shows how carefully chosen transitions (CAPITALIZED) lead the reader smoothly from the introduction to the conclusion of the paragraph.

I don’t wish to deny that the flattened, minuscule head of the large-bodied "stegosaurus" houses little brain from our subjective, top-heavy perspective, BUT I do wish to assert that we should not expect more of the beast. FIRST OF ALL, large animals have relatively smaller brains than related, small animals. The correlation of brain size with body size among kindred animals (all reptiles, all mammals, FOR EXAMPLE) is remarkably regular. AS we move from small to large animals, from mice to elephants or small lizards to Komodo dragons, brain size increases, BUT not so fast as body size. IN OTHER WORDS, bodies grow faster than brains, AND large animals have low ratios of brain weight to body weight. IN FACT, brains grow only about two-thirds as fast as bodies. SINCE we have no reason to believe that large animals are consistently stupider than their smaller relatives, we must conclude that large animals require relatively less brain to do as well as smaller animals. IF we do not recognize this relationship, we are likely to underestimate the mental power of very large animals, dinosaurs in particular.

Stephen Jay Gould, “Were Dinosaurs Dumb?”

SOME USEFUL TRANSITIONS

(modified from Diana Hacker, A Writer’s Reference)

To show addition:
again, and, also, besides, equally important, first (second, etc.), further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, moreover, next, too
To give examples:
for example, for instance, in fact, specifically, that is, to illustrate
To compare:
also, in the same manner, likewise, similarly
To contrast:
although, and yet, at the same time, but, despite, even though, however, in contrast, in spite of, nevertheless, on the contrary, on the other hand, still, though, yet
To summarize or conclude:
all in all, in conclusion, in other words, in short, in summary, on the whole, that is, therefore, to sum up
To show time:
after, afterward, as, as long as, as soon as, at last, before, during, earlier, finally, formerly, immediately, later, meanwhile, next, since, shortly, subsequently, then, thereafter, until, when, while
To show place or direction:
above, below, beyond, close, elsewhere, farther on, here, nearby, opposite, to the left (north, etc.)
To indicate logical relationship:
accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, for this reason, hence, if, otherwise, since, so, then, therefore, thus

Produced by Writing Tutorial Services, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

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