As an English Composition teacher, I have watched as students struggle with specificity when choosing a topic. What I always remind my students of is that the more specific you are about a topic the more you can get out of your paper. If you do not know what you really want to talk about overall then how are you going to know which important details to discuss within your paper? Being that most research papers are made up of smaller details that add up to one over arching argument, it is important to nail down the over arching argument before you start discussing the smaller details.
For additional help I point my students toward Gregory Fraser and Chad Davidson’s ladder of specificity example. For downward thinkers, the ladder is an excellent visual to keep in mind when trying to narrow down a topic. Each rung of the ladder represents one step closer to a specific topic. What is interesting about this example is that the abstract element is at the top of the chart. For writers, like myself, that have always been taught that you have to narrow your broadest idea this visual does not make sense.
Therefore the funnel of specificity works much better. As a writer, I like the funnel because I think in a downward spiral way. You can start with a broad general idea and work your way down to a something extremely narrow. The best part about using the funnel is that you can continue to use it even after you have narrowed down your over arching topic. For instance, the image below is narrowing down an argument within a paper.
However, for those students and writers that really think outside the box and struggle with specificity, I would also like to throw another visual element into the mix, chutes as in Chutes and Ladders. Yes, like the game you may have played as a child. What I like about this visual is that regardless of whether you are an upward thinker, a downward thinker, or a lateral thinker, the goal is of the game and your paper is the same. The goal of the game is to get to the top of the board first, thereby insuring a win; the goal of your paper is similar. A “winning” paper is one that has climbed the ladder of specificity while simultaneously slide down the chute to make it all connect.
While the language of the three images differs, the concept is still very much the same. To avoid a broad general topic or paper you need to be specific, to be specific you sometimes have to climb up of slide down or both. If you are confused by specificity or how to make a topic or a paper more specific, remember that the tutors at the Marshall University Writing Center are here to help.
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