4 Easy Ways to Elaborate Writing

Elaborate means to expand, but just how do you do that?

When students hear the word, “elaborate,” many feel confused and frustrated. They know what the word means–to expand something in detail–and they recognize that the teacher is asking them to say more about their insights and interpretations. But most haven’t a clue how to do so.

When teachers ask student writers to elaborate, they are asking them to think more and more deeply at their own initial conclusions. But just how do you do that?

One of the easiest ways to help student writers learn to expand their thinking and elaborate is through use of a dictionary.

Yes, it really is that simple.

A simple dictionary can help student writers clarify, refine, expand, and elaborate their thinking.

Below are four easy ways that student writers can use dictionaries to help them learn to develop their thinking and write more.

1. Look up the definition of an essay concept or a salient word used in the cited textual evidence.

After student writers become aware of the commonly accepted definition of a word, they have an opportunity to compare their own understanding of the examined word to the officially accepted definition of the word, and this comparison work can help students expand their own ideas.

For example, should a student writer need to elaborate their ideas about a relationship between friends in a text, if they look up the word “friend” in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (or another quality dictionary such as Merriam-Webster), they find that the OED defines “friend” as “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection.” However, the student writers’ own ideas about friendship and their observations about and insights into the friendship they need to analyze in a text are likely to include much more information and more nuanced ideas about what emotions and behaviors constitute friendship. By comparing and contrasting their own ideas with the definition, they begin the work of expanding, developing, and elaborating their own ideas.

2. Investigate the etymology of an essay concept or a salient word used in cited textual evidence.

Sometimes the etymology or origin of a word can also help student writers develop and refine their thinking about the concept or behavior they need to analyze in their essays. For example, the word “friend” derives from a root word meaning “to love” that is shared by the word “free.” This etymology suggests that the love between friends is, in ways, unconstrained in ways that a love might not be if the love occurs between family members. When this new knowledge is applied to the specific friendship students must analyze, the comparison can help them clarify and, with greater detail, analyze that relationship. Further, by looking up the definition of the word “love” which the OED defines as “an intense feeling of deep affection,” and the definition of the word “free” which the OED defines as “able to act or be done as one wishes; not under the control of another,” and by comparing the behaviors in the friendship being analyzed with these ideas, students are able to develop and elaborate (say more about) their insights into the friendship being analyzed.

3. Use a dictionary to define parts of a word.

For example, student writers charged with analyzing a friendship, might look up both parts of the word friendship, “friend” and “ship,” and discover that the word ship refers to a “large boat for transporting people by sea.” If student writers combine what they know about the word friend—a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection—with what they know from the definition of ship—a large boat for transporting people by sea—they begin to see possibilities for deeper analysis. Is the friendship seaworthy? Is it strong enough to carry the two characters over distances? In this situation, student writers can elaborate their thinking about the friendship by describing the literal and emotional distances over which the friendship has transpired. If the friendship is not strong enough to carry the two characters over distances, the student writers can use negation to develop and elaborate their thinking.

This strategy can be used to help elaborate concepts as well. For example, while the word “love” cannot be broken down into two parts, the idea of “platonic love” does have two parts, and students can elaborate or develop their thoughts by looking up the definition of “platonic” and “love.”

4. Use the dictionary to look up the definition of words similar to the word that describes the essay concept or a salient word used in cited textual evidence.

For example, student writers might look up a word that is similar to “friend” such as “companion.” The OED defines “companion” as a “person with whom one spends a lot of time.” By comparing and contrasting the definition of “friend” – “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection”—with the definition of “companion” – a person with whom one spends a lot of time,” student writers can deepen and elaborate their thinking. Do the characters in the text simply spend time together or do they also share a common bond of fond feeling?

These strategies prove useful for student writers of all ages. For example, the below examples were written by a seventh grader writer charged with writing an essay about how the use of personification contributes to the sense of danger and unreality in the short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell.

The bolded words are those the student writer chose to look up in the dictionary. Before engaging in dictionary work, the writer had simply written that the use of personification made the story “scary.”

First quotation (textual evidence) that the student writer wanted to use as evidence:

“The stone steps were real enough; the massive door with a leering gargoyle for a knocker was real enough…”

Definition of leering:

Watch with malicious intent or intent to hurt”

Student writer’s thoughts after reading the definition:

  • Makes reader feel that Rogers is in danger and might be harmed or even killed by the gargoyle
  • Creepy too because it makes inanimate gargoyle seem alive and capable of human intentions and purposes

Student writer’s written elaboration of evidence:

Rogers is unnerved by the gargoyle when he enters the Dr. Zaroff’s demense. The use of the verb “leered” implies that the gargoyle is alive and is staring at Rogers maliciously with an intent to do harm to him. Also, by implying that the gargoyle can act in the same way a human can, the verb “leered” helps make the disturbing, creepy sense of unreality in the story.

Second quotation from the text the student wanted to use as evidence:

“…giant rocks with razor edges crouch like a sea monster with wide-open jaws.”

Definition of crouch:

Bending down as if getting ready to attack

Student writer’s thoughts after reading the definition:

  • Makes reader feel as if rocks are threatening Rogers. They may be about to assault or do some kind of violent thing to Rogers. The attack might be sudden.
  • Scary because makes rocks seem alive. They might act deliberately and that’s weird because a rock isn’t alive (like gargoyle).

Student writer’s written elaboration of evidence:

The use of “crouch” makes it seem like the rocks are going to pounce on Rogers, probably to harm him. In addition, the rocks seem to be threatening, maybe as threatening as General Zaroff (Rogers’ enemy in the story). They may be as evil as General Zaroff. By personifying the rocks, the author makes the jungle seem unreal, terrifying, and alive in unexpected and frightening ways.

Need help getting your student writer to elaborate? Call us! We’re always ready to help you!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, phone, and Google docs to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized curriculum for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and college aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and win admission to the Ivy League and other competitive colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.

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