Dear Fellow Gather Wags, Pundits, Raconteurs:
In recent weeks, weâ€™ve been talking about what makes for strong writing. Two weeks ago, we talked about economy: using as few words as you can, and using the strongest words you can (i.e. nouns and verbs). Last week, we looked at metonyms, one excellent way to transform vague concepts into vivid images.
Today, we continue that discussion in a more general way. Our proposition is: Prefer the concrete to the abstract, and todayâ€™s guest columnist is E.B. White (Charlotteâ€™s Web, The Elements of Style)!
Use definite, specific, concrete language.
Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.
A period of unfavorable
It rained every day for a week.
He showed satisfaction
He grinned as he pocketed the coin.
If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this:Â the surest way to arouse and hold the readerâ€™s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete.Â The greatest writersâ€”Homer, Dante, Shakespeareâ€”are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matterÂ Their words call up pictures.
Jean Staffordâ€¦demonstrates in her short story â€œIn the Zooâ€ how prose is made vivid by the use of words that evoke images and sensations:
â€¦Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks.Â It belonged to a gentle alcoholic neâ€™er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in rickeys and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to his animals.Â He had a little, stunted red vixen and a deodorized skunk, a parrot from Tahiti that spoke Parisian French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured head that it was impossible not to think their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understandâ€¦
â€¦In exposition and in argument [i.e. not just narrative!], the writer must likewise never lose hold of the concrete; and even when dealing with general principles, the writer must furnish particular instances of their application. [italics mine]
[White then gives this example from Herbert Spencerâ€™s Philosophy of Style:]
In proportion as the manners, customs and amusements of
In proportion as men delight in battles, bull-fights, and combats of gladiators, will they punish by hanging, burning, and the rack.
[Strunk, Jr., William, and White, E.B.: The Elements of Style, 4th Edition; Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2000, p. 21-22]
Are you getting the idea yet?
Hereâ€™s another terrific example I found in the blogosphere by somebody named Carly aka â€œCindersâ€ (complete article):
He says he loves me
But I don't think he knows
What love means
I hate him because he lies
When he says he love me
It's very sad, and very painful
And it hurts when I reply
"I love you too"
Because I know I can't mean it
If he doesn't mean it
His ruby promises are plastic
Like the childish ring he tried to pass off
As a real diamond
Though I had to mine for years to find the gems I offer him
He manufactures them in the calculating factory of his mind
They are sharper than mine
They draw blood
But the last words I ever say to him are as cheap as his faux Rolex--
"I love you."
By Carlyâ€™s own admission, not the greatest poem ever written (not the worst, either), but look at the difference!Â The second poem is so much more colorful, evocative, and original.Â Which one do you think youâ€™re likely to remember longer?
Write a poem or a sketch. Polish it until every abstraction or vague concept or generalization is represented by a concrete image or specific detail which brings up a picture or otherwise arouses the senses.
Read this fine tutorial: â€œConcrete and Specific Languageâ€
The idea here is:Â there are many levels of abstraction for any conceptâ€”in fact, you can construct a continuum running from the abstract to the most concrete.Â For example (the lower the number, the more concrete):
7. junk food
5. ice cream
4. premium ice cream
3. Ben and Jerry's ice cream
2. Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream
1. a double-scoop waffle cone of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream
Complete the practice exercise there on â€œThe Ladders of Abstraction.â€Â Use the starter words given there, or your own, or both.Â Post your results, thus:
1. Musicâ€”Songâ€”Rock Songâ€”â€œStairway To Heavenâ€
2. Yardâ€”Lawnâ€”Grassâ€”Clover and dandelions with patches of grass
- PutÂ SunWE in the title and tags.
- Share your post with Gather Writing Essential group.
- Indicate in some way which devices or techniques I should be paying attention to. Â (If responding to todayâ€™s, put Concrete in the title field.)
- This prompt does not turn into a pumpkin a week (or even two) from today.Â If your piece isnâ€™t done in the next week or two, get it in when you can.Â This is supposed to be fun.
- I will comment on every submission and include a link to it in the next column.
- If you would like a little more academic critique--but still very friendly and positive--include the word "rigorous" in your post (e.g. "rigorous critique wanted").
Responses to previous prompts below. Let me know if I missed yours.
byÂ Tovli S.
Caption Contest is going on hiatus. Thanks to everyone who participated!
Last Week's Winner
"After the stampede"
Photo Â©2012 Douglas J. Westberg
Â© 2012 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Â Please share this on Gather.com, and elsewhere on the web by means of a link back to this page, but please do not copy. Â Doug's latest book is The Depressed Guy's Book of Wisdom from Chipmunka Publishing.
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