Be Specific


Mentor Text Suggestions:
Beach by Elisha Cooper
Big Mama’s by Donald Crews
Outside, Inside by Carolyn Crimi
In the Tall, Tall Grass by Denise Fleming
Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes
Bunny Cakes by Rosemary Wells

One way to dramatically improve student writing is to teach them about specificity of nouns and verbs. Many students have been taught that adding adjective makes writing more descriptive. The truth is, stronger nouns and verbs hold the secret to better descriptive writing.

“Verbs are the engines of sentences. The more specific the verb, the more energy and specificity the sentence will have.”

     –Georgia Heard, The Revision Toolbox

“Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum…flail, poke, dazzle, squash, beguile, pamper, swagger, wheedle, vex.”

     –William Zinssner, On Writing Well

“If verbs are the ‘engines’ of sentences, “nouns are the wheels on which that engine rides. They need to be sturdy, solid, and specific.”

     –Georgia Heard, The Revision Toolbox

Specific Nouns and Verbs
The more specific the verb, the more accurately the writer can convey an image or create a scene. Give students a sentence with the verb blanked out. Have them brainstorm a list of verbs that could be used to complete the sentence.

The car _________ down the road.

(skidded, raced, swerved, putzed, flew)

Nouns need to be specific and concrete, too. Have students brainstorm specific nouns for a list of vague ones.

bird = cardinal 
dog = German shepherd 
things = paper clips 
flower = chrysanthemum 
boy = student

Proper Nouns
Encourage students to revise some of their common nouns and replace them with proper nouns. This is another effective way to achieve specificity. Using people names, place names, or brand names brings credibility to a text and conjures up stronger images for the reader.

Saturdays and Teacakes by Lester Laminack
Uptown by Brian Collier
Come On, Rain! by Karen Hess
Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
Baby by Patricia MacLachlan

Color Words
Color words can also be spruced up a bit with a dose of specificity. Color words do not have to be limited to the primary colors or the colors of the rainbow. Try bringing in strips of paint samples or having students look through their crayon boxes and making lists of synonyms for the basic colors. Why write blue when we could write sapphire, powder blue, azure, Air Force blue, cobalt, electric blue, denim, cyan, cornflower, indigo, royal blue, steel blue, ultramarine, or sky blue…and this list could go on. Click here for more writing mini-lessons and mentor texts that use color.

Hyphenated Adjectives
While strings of adjectives do not generally enhance descriptive writing, the use of hyphenated adjectives can add specificity and voice to a piece. Adjectives should be powerful, purposeful, fresh, and interesting. (Cappelli and Dorfman, 2007). A hyphen indicates that two words should be thought of as one, especially when using two adjectives or groups of words that are acting as a unit. (Anderson, 2005). Share examples from mentor texts and then invite students to try some on their own. Try giving them fill-in-the-blank phrases to practice.

The Divide by Michael Bedard
Up North at the Cabin by Marsha Wilson Chall
My Mama Had a Dancing Heart by Libba Moore Gray
Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash by Donald Graves

Examples from  My Mama Had a Dancing Heart by Libba Moore Gray:

“Bless the world it feels like a tip-tapping song-singing finger-snapping kind of day.”

“…out we’d go into the red-orange morning with kites and balloons tied to our wrists.”

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