Rewriting for Style

3. Concretion

Believe you have the choice.

Concretions are things you can perceive with the five senses—tastes, smells, sights, sounds, touches. The opposite of concretions are abstractions: thoughts, opinions, feelings, ideas, concepts. By extension, in language concretions are words or passages that evoke sensation—they make you feel like you're smelling, seeing, and so on, when you read them; abstractions don't. Concretions and abstractions can be nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs.

Concretions: swim, jump, door, shoe, nose, crash, prickly, wet, slowly, saunter, trumpet, Hollandaise sauce, CD
Abstractions: idea, think, love, wonder, consideration, problem, anger, threaten, perversely, extreme, honest

As with all style features, we begin by convincing ourselves that any message can be said either in concretions or in abstractions. Most writers think that certain writing tasks are inherently concrete, like describing a car crash or showing how to bake a cake, and certain tasks are inherently abstract, like discussing philosophy or religion. To break down that prejudice, take "inherently" concrete or abstract statements and translate them into the opposite style:

Abstract: Modern society suffers from alienation.
Concrete: All of us walk through this world rubbing shoulders but never really touching.
Concrete: The car skidded off the slick macadam, rolled twice, and folded itself around a three-foot-thick oak.
Abstract: A terrible accident occurred.
Abstract: Gun ownership can lead to the possibility of serious injury.
Concrete: If you buy a gun, there's a good chance you'll shoot your foot off.
Concrete: His eyes were twitching, his hands were trembling, his brow was coated with sweat, and he kept pacing back and forth mumbling to himself.
Abstract: He was nervous.

Understand the effect of your choices.

Concrete language, because it involves the senses, is emotionally intense—it makes us feel. It's easier to understand, because humans are primarily feelers, secondarily thinkers. It's compelling—we believe it—because we feel like we're getting the facts, the actual evidence, instead of just the opinion. And finally, concretions are fun, because feeling is fun.

So where would you ever want to write abstractly? In school, where teachers are trying to get you to master abstract thought. In places where you want to remain rational and concretions would reduce the conversation to an emotional brawl, as in discussions of volatile issues like race or abortion. In places where clinical objectivity is a must, as in medical writing or reporting on scientific experiments. When you're applying for government grants, and you want to appear as professorial as possible. So as always you need both styles.

Master the technique.

To control our concretion level, we first must be sure we can distinguish between concrete and abstract on the page. Begin by asking if you can perceive it with your senses. Be careful: we tend to say things like "I could see she was angry," but in fact you can't—you can hear that someone is shouting, see she's red in the face, and feel she's beating you with her fists, so those are all concretions, but anger is a conclusion you draw from the concrete data, so anger is an abstraction. And don't assume that if the word makes you feel, then it's concrete—lots of abstract ideas, like racism or Christianity, evoke strong feelings.

There are other measuring sticks:

Once you know for sure whether a passage is concrete or not, how do you make it concrete if it isn't? Here are eleven ways.

1. Ask, "What's my evidence? How do I know?" and write down the answers. You write, "He loves me," ask how you know, and write down, "He leaves little love notes on Post-Its in secret places, like in my physics class notebook, so I discover them when I'm in class."

2. Ask, "Who's doing what to whom?" Talk in terms of people. Almost everything you write is about humans doing things—express it in those terms. "Practice charity" becomes "Hand the next homeless person you see ten dollars." "The usage of a dictionary is encouraged" becomes "I encourage teachers to use a dictionary."

J. M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan, knew the power of people, so Peter Pan begins with this note:

Do you know that this book is part of the J. M. Barrie "Peter Pan Request"? This means that J. M. Barrie's royalty on this book goes to help the doctors and nurses to cure the children who are lying ill in the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London.

People appear in those two sentences eight times: you, J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie, doctors, nurses, children, and sick children. Take the people out, and the loss hits you like a chill wind:

All royalties from the sale of this book are donated to further medical research in pediatrics and to help defer the cost of indigent pediatric medical care.

3. Use "I" and "you." You and the reader are the two concretions you've always got.

4. Let people talk. All quotations are concrete, because they're heard. Quote the speech of the people you mention, even if you have to invent it.

5. Concretize your verbs. Verbs are the parts of speech most likely to go abstract, so we want to focus on them and force them to concretize. Abstract verbs are like is, are, continue, accomplish, effect, involve, proceed, utilize, initiate, remain, and constitute. Concrete verbs are like run, jump, smell, fall, shrink, and fly.

6. Particularize your concretions. Some concretions are better than others—more emotive, more colorful. Move is colorless; slither is colorful. The difference is one of particularity. To particularize a word, ask yourself, "In what way did it happen?" or "What kind of thing was it?"

Less livelyMore lively
moveslither, slink, sashay, saunter, crawl, skip
carragtop, four-door, SW, lowrider
horsepinto, Clydesdale, swayback plow horse
hairdomullet, cornrows

Particulars have an amazing persuasiveness, as every good salesperson knows: The more particulars, the more we're sold on what we read. When I read an ad for a powerboat that says,

Kurtis Kraft 10-inch runner bottom, blown injected, 114-inch Velasco crank, Childs and Albert rods, Lenco clutch, Casale 871 Little Field blower, Enderle injection,

I don't know what any of that means, but I can't help thinking, "It must be a great boat!"

7. Tell stories. Narratives encourage concretion, because they're usually about things people did.

8. Use the active voice. Passive constructions make the people disappear. In an active sentence, the doer is the subject: "George broke the chair." A passive construction—a form of to be plus a past participle— doesn't need to mention the doer at all: "The chair was broken."

There is one large exception to this rule. In scientific and technical writing, if you are describing a process—a step-by-step series of events—then what was done is all that matters and who did it is a distraction, so use the passive voice. Write, "The surface liquid was drained off and the residue transferred to a sterile petri dish"; don't write, "One of my lab assistants, Pippi Carboy, drained off the surface liquid and Lance Credance, a post-doctoral fellow who shares the lab, transferred the residue to a sterile petri dish."

9. Use metaphors. A metaphor is an implied comparison. Instead of stating an abstraction, you state a concretion the abstraction is like. That sounds intimidating, but in fact you use metaphors ten thousand times a day. Instead of saying to your roommate, "Your living habits are filthy and revolting," you say, "You're a pig." You can't articulate clearly on a sleepy Monday morning, and instead of saying, "My mental processes are impaired," you say, "I can't jumpstart my brain." Instead of saying, "That rock band is out of date," you say, "They're dinosaurs."

Everyday English is stiff with metaphors. In the world of sports, for instance, teams lock horns, fold, choke, run out of gas, get snakebit, and look over their shoulder. Players press too hard, go flat, carry teams, get swelled heads, rest on their laurels, and coast. Quarterbacks pick defenses apart and have to eat the ball, and pitchers throw smoke, pull the string, and nibble at the corners. But the best metaphors are the ones you make up yourself. An interviewer once asked Charlton Heston what Cecil B. DeMille, the legendary Hollywood director, was like, and Heston replied, "He cut a very large hole in the air." It hit me like a brisk breeze in the face.

To make up a metaphor, you just take the abstraction and ask yourself, "What physical process is this like? What do I see when I try to visualize it? How does it feel in the body? How would I draw it?" Having your boyfriend terminate your relationship feels like getting your heart ripped out and handed to you; you imagine him booting you out the door and you landing on your butt on the pavement; and so on.

10. Use similes. A simile (pronounced "SIMMalee") is a metaphor with the comparison spelled out with the word like or as:

Writing unrhymed poetry is like playing tennis without a net. (Robert Frost)
While her mind had wandered, her eyes had gone on reading, dutifully moving from word to word like well-trained horses through a haylot. (John Gardiner)

Students are more comfortable with similes than with metaphors because they're easier to spot.

11. Substitute examples. When you find an abstraction, ask yourself, "What's a concrete example of that?", and replace the abstraction with the example. On a TV show I heard Stanley Kramer, the movie director, talking about how he financed his first movie. Straight out of the army, knowing no one and nothing about getting financial backing, he walked into a bank and asked for the money. Kramer wanted to say, "I'd never been in a bank before except to conduct minor personal financial transactions." But being an entertainer, he knew how dull that would sound, so he said, "I'd never been in a bank before except to take out twenty dollars." He was really saying something like, "I'd never been in a bank before except to (do things like, for example,) take out twenty dollars."

When Robin Lee Graham, who sailed around the world when he was sixteen and wrote a book about it, explains why he loved sailing, he might have said, "Sailing was a chance to escape from all the meaningless busywork of my life." Instead he says,

It was the chance to escape from blackboards and the smell of disinfectant in the school toilet, from addition and subtraction sums that were never the same as the teacher's answers, from spelling words like "seize" and "fulfill" and from little league baseball.

The Bible loves to illustrate abstract lessons with concrete examples. It won't say, "Be generous with others"; it will say, "Take your bread and divide it in half and give half to a stranger."

We've mastered three stylistic features, but we're just getting started. We can use the same three steps to master dozens or hundreds of others that remain. For instance:

The world of style is all before you. Have fun exploring.

Rawlins, Jack, ed. The Writer's Way. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.