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Be Specific (part2)

Specifics give a paper more authority. A student who writes that he can say anything he wants because this is a free country is less convincing than one who writes that he can say anything he wants because freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. But the student who writes that she can say whatever she wants because the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that the government can make no law "abridging the freedom of speech" of the people will be the one everyone listens to with respect. She sounds as if she knows what she's talking about. Why? Because she was the most specific.

Being specific applies to whatever kind of paper you are writing. In a history paper, give the most detailed facts possible. Be sure to cite where you found them. Don't paraphrase what King George said if in fact you can quote a phrase or a line from the old tyrant himself. If you are analyzing Martin Luther King, quote the specific words that prove whatever point you are making. Do not talk in generalities about his "noble Southern rhetoric" or his "Baptist style" without also showing me examples. Do not refer to e. e. cummings's "peculiar punctuation" without providing evidence. For all you know, I may find his punctuation perfectly normal and may therefore be sitting here wondering what you are talking about. If you are looking for ways to stretch your paper to the required length, you might even provide more than one example. But do not overdo it. Two or three are plenty.

In addition to citing specific examples taken from the text or from outside research, relating personal anecdotes from your own experience can be an excellent way to illustrate whatever point you are trying to make. To the frustration of journalists and scholars, Ronald Reagan used personal anecdotes instead of facts to communicate quite successfully with the public. But be careful. We scholars - and we professors all like to call ourselves "scholars" - do like to see a few hard facts, real quotes, or statistics among the personal story-telling. Anecdotes can illustrate but can't substantiate.

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