Do you want your students to write prize-winning essays? Or to earn top scores on your standardized writing test? How would you like a quick memory trick that is guaranteed to improve your students’ writing? You already know the key components of writing are content, style, and mechanics. Too often, we English teachers focus our writing instruction on mechanics. It’s easier to teach and to grade; mechanics is objective. In order to really impact our students’ writing, we need to spend way more time on content and style. I have a little hack that will help you improve both the variety and quality of details in your students’ writing.
Details in writing
The difference is in the details. Supporting details. Concrete details. Specific details. The Common Core standards say this about informational writing (W.7.2b): “Develop the topic with relevant facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.” In eighth grade, the bar is raised as details must be relevant and well-chosen. The standards for narrative writing are similar (W.7.3d): “Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to capture the action and convey experiences and events.”
relevant facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.
The problem is students know they’re supposed to add details, but they’re not sure how. Or they choose the wrong details. When you ask students to elaborate in their writing, what do they do? Mine either added another sentence that said the exact same thing or they added a string of adjectives (often vague, meaningless, pointless adjectives). Like that!
Teach SAFE-Q for better specific details in writing
SAFE-Q is an acronym for the kinds of details you want to see in your students’ papers.
Tip: If you want this to be etched in their brains forever, grab a handful of Sharpie markers and have kids write the letters on their fingertips as you introduce each type of detail.
S is for sensory language. (We also call this imagery.) Sensory language appeals to the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. If your students are all writing about the same topic, you can compile an anchor chart of relevant descriptive words. Challenge writers to brainstorm beyond the obvious. For inspiration, check out the lists at words-to-use.com.
A is for anecdotes. An anecdote, a super-short story, illustrates a point or relates a personal experience. Students may tend to ramble on or get side-tracked from their main topic by sharing too much in the anecdote. If this is the case, you can challenge them to “tweet” the anecdote in 140 or fewer characters.
Facts and figures or Figurative language
F can be for facts and figures or figurative language. Facts and figures, or statistics, are particularly important in informative and opinion/argumentative writing. It’s never too early to teach students to cite source for their facts and figures!
Figurative language includes simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, and other figures of speech. Adding details through figurative language, especially original phrases instead of cliches, helps to create a unique voice in writing.
E is for examples. An example relates a specific instance. (An anecdote can provide an example, but not all examples are narrative anecdotes.) Depending on the topic, students can share examples from science, history, current events, or from personal experience.
E can also be evidence from the text if you’re writing literary analysis. Isn’t textual evidence cited as an example to prove a point?
Q is for quotations. A quotation repeats the exact words of someone, famous or not. High school teachers will love you if you teach your students to write a “quote sandwich,” rather than just plopping the quote onto the page. Writers should 1) provide context; 2) identify the speaker/writer; 3) share the quotation; and 4) explain the significance. You should also warn your students that the popular quote websites aren’t always accurate!
I use Writing with Details task cards in my writing center rotations each month for extension and remediation.
Putting SAFE-Q into practice
To practice, give your class a topic sentence and have students come up with specific details that could be used in that paragraph. You can challenge them to give a certain type of detail to begin with. Establishing that constraint forces us to be more creative and precise at the same time.
Pull out your writing folders and have students highlight the specific details in a piece they’ve already written. Can they identify which types of details they used? You may find that students rely on the same type of detail over and over. If that’s the case, have them revise to add a new kind of detail they didn’t already use.
In an informative or argumentative paper, specific details provide the support for the writer’s claims. Each body paragraph should include at least 2-3 specific details. Be sure that students add commentary or explanations about why the example, quotation, or statistic matters and how it supports their point.
In a narrative, have writers use details to control their pacing. First, choose the most important or most suspenseful part. This is where they want to slow the action down by adding description. Puh-leeze don’t let your students describe every minute of an event in excruciating detail. Teach them to prioritize and use transitions to move quickly through the “boring” parts. Then add specific details to focus on the key points and make them shine!
Resources for Teaching details in writing
For focused practice throughout the year, try my Writing with Details lessons using SAFE-Q.
Download a free copy of the SAFE-Q poster to use with your students.