Teaching Detail and Development

Students often forget how important detail and development are in helping the audience understand their writing. The old "showing not telling" addage really holds true in nonfiction writing as well as fiction. In a Literacy Essay, for example, it's one thing to say "I was in third grade" and another to describe what that experience was like so that the reader can visualize or "feel" it as they read details about the classroom itself, the teacher's appearance and demeanor, or what it felt like to sit in the classroom and watch the hands on the clock slowly lurch their way towards three o'clock. "I was in third grade" gives accurate information but no sense of what this experience means to the writer.

This guide includes several exercises. To move directly to them, following the links below.

Suggested Sequence

The Suggested Sequence section provides ideas and ways to work the exercises into your class. The bibilographical information provides other sources for more information about exercises like these or other ideas for your classroom.

We've set up suggestions for some exercises that work well together and suggested days on which you may want to implement them, but shuffle them around according to what works best for you and your class.

Day One

It's probably best to stick to going over your syllabus, introducing yourself to your students, and having them introduce themselves to one another. Since this is a workshop course, the earlier they get to know one another and feel comfortable discussing assignments together, the more smoothly your workshops will go in the future. If you have a Tues./Thurs. class and don't want to let them out too early, the cookie exercise from Stephen Reid's textbook, the Prentice Hall Guide, works well on the first day. It gives them some early practice with writing detail, they get to work together, and most importantly, you provide them with a tasty snack that will endear you to them for the rest of the semester.

In the Prentice Hall Guide, a famous architect has written two paragraphs describing the structural properties of the Nabisco sugar wafer and the Nabisco Fig Newton. You could have them turn to this page after the activity -- it will show them how one's experience constructs how they observe and evaluate things, but also give them some more insight into how great detail can really change the way the reader perceives even common objects or events. Besides, feeding students cookies and other treats is a good way to get them on your side quickly.

Setting Up the Exercise

You'll need enough of two different types of cookies (or candies) for everyone. You may want to use two cookies/candies that are similar to encourage them to recognize and describe the subtle differences, like the difference between a fig newton or an apple newton, a ginger snap and a molasses cookie, etc. Your choice should, however, allow for more distinction than "An Almond Joy has an almond and a Mounds doesn't."

Have students first describe each treat in separate paragraphs, and then have them write a third paragraph that compares the two. Select volunteers to read, or collect the paragraphs and read a few randomly. Discuss what made some essays more effective than others, and what they will need to keep in mind about effective detail in general. This is good practice for evaluating and workshopping when there's no pressure.

Day Two

The Detail Game works well on the second day, as does the Object Lesson. Depending on the length of your class period, you could do both. This will give students an excellent opportunity to not only practice detail and development, but also to work together as a class or in small groups. These are both fun assignments, so they can really get your class excited about the course.

The Detail Game

This idea comes from Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff's Community of Writers. It is helpful in getting students accustomed to class participation and using descriptive detail. The activity is fun and always gets everybody involved -- the wilder the class gets with their ideas, the better. You will ask students to look at an object and use descriptive detail -- stressing the five senses -- to reveal something about the object to the audience. You can bring an object from home, the odder the better, and have them come up with as much description as they can about it. You can often have them launch into a narrative by beginning to build a story around your object.

Setup for the Detail Game

Pick an object from home that's somewhat unusual to draw students' attention and to get them observing and describing creatively. Pass the object around, and going from person to person, have each say one thing that describes the object. At first you'll get boring things like the object's color and its size, so stress the idea of the five senses: What does it feel like when you touch it? Does it have a smell? Taste? Sound? As you get to the middle of the class, ask someone to place the object in a setting. What's it doing there? Or imagine who the object might belong to, and build a story from there.

Let students have fun with this game. They'll probably surprise themselves with what they come up with, especially as they often begin to try to top one another with the creativeness of their contribution.

The Object Lesson Exercise

The purpose of this exercise is to give students practice working with details and similes, as well as to reinforce the ideas of focus and development. You'll need enough good objects to have one object (placed in an opaque bag) for each group. A few of the objects should have similar characteristics, such as a knife and scissors. Each group will get a bag with an object in it, and they will have to describe it so that the other group can guess what the object is based on the descriptions.

Setup for the Object Lesson Exercise

Have your class divide into groups of four. One group member should take an object from the grab bag. Tell the students not to show their objects to the other groups. Then have them place the objects where each member of their own groups can see them. Each group member should write a paragraph describing the object. Tell them not to name the object if they know what it is. They should use as much detail as possible in their descriptions, including sensory detail about size, shape, color, weight, materials, etc. They may want to make comparisons in their descriptions, such as "It's the size of a _________, or the shape of a _________."

Collect the objects when they are finished, noting which group had what object.

Each group member should then exchange his/her paper with someone in the next group. Everyone must then draw the object based on the description they've been given.

After they have completed their drawings, pass back the objects to the groups. Have students compare their drawings with the objects themselves. Discuss the descriptions. Which ones produced more "accurate" drawings and why? Where was there good detail? What would have made descriptions better?

Day Three

There are three activities that work well on the third day, or you may want to skip ahead to Day Four, depending on how much time you want to devote to these activities. The Prentice Hall Guide cookie exercise, the World Without Adjectives Exercise, or the Mystery Person Contest all move students beyond simple five-senses detail into describing characters and putting them in action to reveal something about them by "showing" rather than "telling."

The Cookie Game Exercise

You can view this exercise above.

World without Adjectives

This exercise involves taking a passage from a book, removing all descriptive detail, and having the students fill it in for themselves. It not only gives them practice writing description, but it also shows how boring and lifeless (and less meaningful and effective) writing is without supporting and descriptive detail.

Setup for World without Adjectives

Select a descriptive passag and remove all of its descriptive detail. Photocopy and make a transparency of the original and the revised passages. One instructor used a passage from detective novel that describes an investigator arriving at a crime scene -- and without supporting detail, it's bland rather than grisly. I used a passage from Michael Chabon's Mysteries of Pittsburgh, that reveals a great deal about a character unless the description is removed. A pulp romance would work well too.

Have students decide where they think detail should be added, and have them rewrite the passage. When they're finished, ask volunteers to read, or collect and randomly read a few passages. Discuss to see where people generally agreed detail was needed, and what was lost to the meaning and effectiveness of the passage without the detail. Then pass out copies of the original passage to show them what it really looked like. Discuss the differences, and impress upon them that this is exactly why detail will be so important in their essays.

Mystery Person Contest

Aside from teaching the importance of detail, this activity has the virtue of requiring no materials, so it can be done as a fun activity any time you are stuck for something to do (maybe you got through everything else at lightening speed), and you want to reinforce the idea that description is important. It involves individual writing that will be shared with the rest of the class. You can run the activity as a contest, depending on the dynamic in your class. Some classes love this; others feel insulted, as if you are bribing them like recalcitrant children. Either way, it gets them to write and to share their writing with each other.

Setup for Mystery Person Contest

Have everyone write a page describing a well-known person or character without naming the character. The idea is to describe the person/character in such detail that everyone will recognize who it is. While you don't want students to create a cryptic riddle no one will be able to guess, you also want them to move beyond "He's the President of the United States." The idea is to describe the person's physical attributes, personal characteristics, actions, etc., so that classmates will recognize the person/character by the description. Stress putting the person/character in action. For example, it would be pointless to describe Michael Jordan as a "tall, bald African-American man" -- that could be many people -- without describing the way he moves, which reveals something singular about him. When they are finished, have students read the descriptions out loud and see how effectively they have described their person/character. If no one recognizes him/her, then the student has either picked someone obscure, or they will hopefully realize that their powers of description could use a little work. Have students decide whose description wins -- some people really do a wonderful job with this, providing entertaining and detailed sketches.

Day Four

If you haven't done it yet, the Object Lesson works well on the fourth day, and it can lead you into the Collaborative Narrative exercise. This is a useful tool for getting your students to work together in groups, as well as to start moving beyond simple description and into using detail to enhance a narrative and move it along.

Object Lesson

You can view the Object Lesson Exercise above.

Collaborative Narrative

This is another exercise from Elbow and Belanoff's Community of Writers that works well to move the class from simple description to creating a story or using description to enhance that story. It's fun and gets students to enjoy working together. Usually I do this as a classwide activity to model the exercise, and then I have them break into groups for another narrative. Once in groups, I have them decide on titles for their narratives. You can put these on the board, and when you're finished, you can have the class can vote on the best narrative.

Setup for Collaborative Narrative Exercise

All that you need ahead of time are provocative opening sentences the groups will use to build their narratives. You can make these up or borrow them from novels or short stories. The opening sentence of Kafka's "Metamorphosis," for example, gets them started on stories about a guy who turns into a bug. To model the activity, write down the first sentence and then go around the room and have each person contribute successive sentences. Description usually falls out the window when they concentrate on plot, so emphasize the idea that descriptive detail is important to the meaning of the narrative. If someone says, "a girl walks in," encourage the next person to describe that girl. Go around the room until you come to some sort of conclusion. If they get into this, you can go through the class twice and just keep building.

In small groups, give them all the same sentence and have them repeat this, with one person recording their story as they come up with it. Again, reinforce the idea of detail -- they usually come up with only a bare-bones plot and no development. When everyone is done, have a reporter for each group read the story aloud.

Individual and Collaborative Exercises

This section divides the exercises into those that can be done by students individually, in small groups, or as a whole class activity. It's best to use a combination of these to get students comfortable with working together in small groups, to get them recognizing and responding to each other as a class early on, and to give them individual practice with the writing techniques.

Many of the whole class activities can also be done in small groups; in fact, it's often useful to model the activity by doing it as a whole class and then breaking the class into small groups to work on the same activity.

To learn more about the exercises, choose any item below:

Whole Class Activities

If you want a discussion-based class, the more you get students talking to the whole class from the beginning, the more comfortable they will be talking later, when you want to discuss essays or articles. Fun activities get everybody talking from the first few days of class, something that often continues through the semester. They also provide basic lessons about the need for detail and description to develop the ideas in their essays. You can use these activities as whole class activities first to model the activity and get everyone participating before breaking into small groups to repeat the activity.

Two useful exercises are described above. You might also find the Bare Bones Pot Game, described below, useful.

The Bare Bones Plot Game

This is very similar to the Collaborative Narrative Exercise, except you give students the bare bones plot to a famous story and have someone from each group follow and record your story. For example, you could summarize part of Crime and Punishment by saying "There's a young man, and he's smart--but he's poor so he's pretty bitter. He doesn't think some people should have so much money. He decides to go to the apartment of these two old women who are rich pawn brokers and steal from them when they are not home. But they come home and surprise him and, in a panic, he kills them. He escapes but knows that the police, especially one officer who suspects him, are bent on catching the killers." Then say "What happens next?" In groups or individually they need to finish the story. Any story works as the bare bones plot, and you'll be surprised with what some people come up with.

Small Group Activities

Since workshop critiques are such an integral part of CO150, small group activities like these not only give students practice using detail for developing their essays, they also give students opportunities to work with one another. Some students establish groups through these activities that they maintain throughout the semester, which has the benefit of giving them a space where they trust one another and get to know what sort of patterns to look for in each other's papers. But it can also be a problem for groups that don't help each other much, so you may want to reshuffle people as the semester wears on. Establishing criteria for workshopping essays, though, should go a long way toward preventing this from happening.

Three useful exercises are described above.

Individual Activities

These activities involve individual writers, but you could turn them into classwide activities by having students read their work out loud, or by collecting and reading some of their paragraphs as a basis for class discussion about effective detail. In this way the activities involve both individual skills-building as well as establishing greater classwide camaraderie.

Three useful exercises are described above.

Composing Processes

Writing textbooks offer a range of useful advice on composing processes that you can assign as readings for your students. For most subtopics, we provide lists you use as an presentation slide.


  • Give sensory details (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste).
  • Use comparisons and images that help readers visualize the unfamiliar.
  • Describe what is not there.
  • Note changes in the subject's form or condition.
  • Write from a distinct point of view.
  • Focus on a dominant idea.

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Choosing a Subject

Most textbooks emphasize choosing a limited subject and discuss methods for brainstorming topics.

Collecting Information and Ideas

Collecting activities include:

  • Sketching -- drawing what you see.
  • Taking double-entry notes.
  • Listing sensory details, facts, impressions/reactions to some person, place, or thing.
  • Freewriting (also used as a brainstorming technique).
  • "Invisible writing" on the computer.

Developing and Shaping

Below are several considerations and possible organizations for shaping your essays.


  • Subject
  • Limited, Specific Topic
  • Purpose
  • Audience


  • Spatial Order
  • Chronological Order
  • Comparison/Contrast
  • Classification
  • Definition
  • Simile, Metaphor, and Analogy
  • Title, Introduction, and Conclusion


To create a draft:

  1. Reread your notes from collecting and shaping.
  2. Reobserve your object, if possible.
  3. Re-examine your purpose, audience, dominant idea (focus), and shape.
  4. Use your notes as a guide to begin drafting.


Before you revise:

  1. Gain some distance and objectivity before rereading what you have written or having it read and reviewed by others.
  2. Reread and/or respond to your readers. Make marginal notes and focus on the overall effect of the essay rather than individual spelling, grammar, and/or style errors.


  • Re-examine purpose and audience. Do you do what you intended? Do your readers understand your intentions?
  • Pay attention to the advice your readers give, but don't necessarily make all the changes they suggest.
  • Consider your point of view.
  • Make sure you are using descriptive details where appropriate.
  • Do all your details and examples support you focus?
  • What is NOT present in your subject that you might need to mention?
  • What CHANGES occur in your subject?
  • Make comparisons if they help you or your reader understand the subject better.
  • Be sure to cue or signal your reader with transitions that help readers understand:
    • space
    • chronology
    • comparison/contrast
  • Revise sentences for clarity, emphasis, and variety.
  • After you revise, edit for correct spelling, grammar, and style.


Stephanie Wardrop. (2018). Teaching Detail and Development. The WAC Clearinghouse. Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/repository/teaching/guides/detail/. Originally developed for Writing@CSU (https://writing.colostate.edu).