Supporting Detail in Composition and Speech

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

supporting details
"Effective supporting details will encourage readers to keep on reading" (Sandra Scarry and John Scarry in The Writer's Workplace, 2011). (Cultura RM/Gu/Getty Images)

In a composition or speech, a supporting detail is a fact, description, example, quotation, anecdote, or other item of information used to back up a claim, illustrate a point, explain an idea, or otherwise support a thesis or topic sentence.

Depending on a number of factors (including topic, purpose, and audience), supporting details may be drawn from research or the personal experience of the writer or speaker.

Even "the smallest detail," says Barry Lane, "can open up a new way of seeing the subject" (Writing as a Road to Self-Discovery).

​Examples of Supporting Details in Paragraphs

Examples and Observations

  • "Good writers provide sufficient details such as examples, facts, quotations, and definitions to support their ideas. Writers use this information, known as supporting detail, to explain, clarify, or illustrate their main points. Without such specific material, a writer's ideas remain abstract and unconvincing. Experienced writers try, whenever possible, to show rather than simply tell their readers what their ideas mean."
    (Peter S. Gardner, New Directions: Reading, Writing, and Critical Thinking, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Supporting Details in a Paragraph on Solitary Prison Cells

  • "Supermax prisons are exactingly designed to kill souls. A solitary cell (referred to as the 'hole' or the 'box') is typically between seventy and eighty square feet, and prisoners are kept alone in them for twenty-three hours a day, with one hour alone in a 'yard' barely twice the size of the cell and a shower perhaps three times a week. Practically all human contact is mediated by bars, mesh or manacles, and many cells are windowless, with an inmate’s exposure to the world outside the cell limited to the door slots through which food is passed by the gloved hands of jailers, often in the form of 'the loaf,' a disgusting pressed amalgam of pulverized food. Cells are, in most cases, deliberately colorless (any 'aesthetic' ingredient is considered an inappropriate privilege in an environment that seeks to level all distinctions to the basest level) and are built--bunks and all--from bare concrete; the only furnishing is a stainless steel toilet-and-sink combo positioned to deny privacy. The lighting is never turned off."
    (Michael Sorkin, "Drawing the Line." The Nation, September 16, 2013)

    Supporting Details in a Paragraph on Baby Boomers

    • "The truth is our generation was spoiled rotten from the start. We spent the entire 1950s on our butts in front of the television while Mom fed us Twinkies and Ring Dings through strawberry Flavor Straws and Dad ransacked the toy stores looking for hundred-mile-an-hour streamlined Schwinns, Daisy air howitzers, Lionel train sets larger than the New York Central system, and other novelties to keep us amused during the few hours when Pinky Lee and My Friend Flicka weren't on the air."
      (P.J. O'Rourke, "The 1987 Stock Market Crash." Age and Guile, Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995)

      Supporting Details in a Paragraph on Segregation

      • "In practice, of course, the 'separate but equal' doctrine perpetuated an oppressive and humiliating reality. To express the judgment that African Americans were inferior and that white people needed to be protected from their contaminating presence, black people were consigned to the back of the bus, directed to use distinct drinking fountains and telephone booths, excluded altogether from white schools and hospitals, permitted to visit zoos and museums only on certain days, confined to designated areas in courtrooms, and sworn in as witnesses using racially differentiated Bibles. Under segregation, white people routinely declined to bestow courtesy titles such as 'Mr.' or 'Mrs.' on black people, referring to them simply as 'boy' or 'girl,' regardless of age. Stores prohibited African Americans from trying on clothes before purchase. Telephone directories marked black residents by placing 'col' (for colored) in parentheses next to their names. Newspapers refused to carry notices for black weddings."
        (Randall Kennedy, "The Civil Rights Act's Unsung Victory." Harper's, June 2014)

      Rachel Carson's Use of Supporting Details

      • "For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death. In the less than two decades of their use, the synthetic pesticides have been so thoroughly distributed throughout the animate and inanimate world that they occur virtually everywhere. They have been recovered from most of the major river systems and even from streams of groundwater flowing unseen through the earth. Residues of these chemicals linger in soil to which they may have been applied a dozen years before. They have entered and lodged in the bodies of fish, birds, reptiles, and domestic and wild animals so universally that scientists carrying on animal experiments find it almost impossible to locate subjects free from such contamination. They have been found in fish in remote mountain lakes, in earthworms burrowing in soil, in the eggs of birds--and in man himself. For these chemicals are now stored in the bodies of the vast majority of human beings, regardless. of age. They occur in the mother's milk, and probably in the tissues of the unborn child."
        (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin, 1962)

        The Purpose of Supporting Details

        • "Once you have constructed a topic sentence made up of the topic and its controlling idea, you are ready to support your statement with details. The quality and number of these details will largely determine the effectiveness of the writing. . . .

          "As you choose your supporting details, keep in mind that the readers do not necessarily have to agree with your point of view. However, your supporting details must be good enough to make your readers at least respect your attitude. Your goal should be to educate your readers. Try to give them some understanding of your subject. Don't assume they know about your topic or are interested in it. If you provide enough specific details your readers will feel they have learned something new about the subject, and this alone is a satisfying experience for most people. Effective supporting details will encourage readers to keep on reading."
          (Sandra Scarry and John Scarry, The Writer's Workplace With Readings: Building College Writing Skills, 7th ed. Wadsworth, 2011)

          Organizing Supporting Details in a Paragraph

          • "Each body paragraph should contain only one main idea, and no detail or example should be in a paragraph if it doesn't support the topic sentence or help to transition from one paragraph to another. . . .

            "[H]ere's the way to organize a paragraph:
            Topic sentence

            First supporting detail or example

            Second supporting detail or example

            Third supporting detail or example

            Concluding or transitional sentence
            You should have several details to support each topic sentence. If you find that you have little to say after writing the topic sentence, ask yourself what details or examples will make your reader believe that the topic sentence is true for you."
            (Paige L. Wilson and Teresa Ferster Glazier, ​The Least You Should Know about English, Form B, 10th ed. Wadsworth, 2009)

          Selective Supporting Details

          • "Select details carefully. Good storytelling requires the purposeful selection of details. Some beginning writers include either the wrong details or more details than the effective relating of the event requires. In your narrative writing you should select details that help you to convey to your readers the point of your essay. This is what [George] Orwell did in the passage from "A Hanging" [paragraphs 9 and 10]. The detail of the condemned man avoiding the puddle of water related to Orwell's purpose in telling the story and to the meaning he saw in it."
            (Morton A. Miller, Reading and Writing Short Essays. Random House, 1980)