Concrete Examples

Image Courtesy Wylie Communications

Visionary Writing Techniques #005

by John Onorato

It’s easy to write about physical objects.

It’s not difficult to describe the weight, feel, and roughness of a brick in your hand. It’s not hard to talk about the smoothness of your cat’s fur in a way that will make your reader understand.

But here in the Visionary group, we talk about a lot of high-falutin’ concepts. Although it’s easy to make general statements about these concepts, this is the hallmark of a beginning writer.

It is more effective, and thus arguably “better,” to focus on specifics. It’s a good idea to provide concrete examples. When you do so, your writing becomes stronger.

Introduce With an Example

Read the following for an example of what I’m talking about.

“Mediterranean and Baltic are the principal avenues of the ghetto. Dogs are everywhere. A pack of seven passes me. Block after block, there are three-story brick houses. Whole segments of them are abandoned, a thousand broken windows. Some parts are intact, occupied. A mattress lies in the street, soaking in a pool of water. Wet stuffing is coming out of the mattress. A postman is having a rye and a beer in the Plantation Bar at nine-fifteen in the morning. I ask him idly if he knows where Marvin Gardens is. He does not.”
— from “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” by John McPhee


Now, without looking back at the passage, try and recall some of the images.

Do you recall the dogs? The windows? The mattress? The postman?
Why do you think you remembered those things?

You were able to recall them because they were memorable images. You can see them in your mind’s eye. Although the specifics of our internal images will differ from person to person, we’ve all seen dogs. We all know what windows look like. We each have more-or-less a common base of experience around mattresses and postmen.

The good writer knows this. The good writer draws on this. The good writer uses concrete imagery to tie the images in their head to the same images (or similar ones) in their readers’ heads.

And Now for the Opposite

What if the author above had written the passage differently? What if he had said “The ghetto is a poor neighborhood. There are lots of stray dogs, abandoned houses, broken windows, and a mattress on the sidewalk.”

Why is that passage not as effective as the first one?

It’s not as effective because it states a general fact. It then offers a few details, but no concrete specifics are mentioned. You might end up with a hazy rendition of a poor neighborhood in your mind, but it is not likely to be a clear picture.

The Lesson Here

As writers, our implicit goal is to have readers see what we see. We want them to understand what we say.

One of the better strategies to do this is to illustrate your ideas with specific examples. Concrete objects are ideal.

A concrete object is just that: Something you can drop on your foot. You can drop a brick on your foot. So too with a wet mattress or a window. You can even drop a stray dog on your foot. The postman might strenuously object, but you could still drop him on your foot. Theoretically speaking, of course.

Concrete objects convey ideas and concepts more effectively than abstractions such as poverty.

The more you write about actual things — objects you can touch — the more readers will enjoy and understand your writing.

Of course, here in the Visionary program, we talk about abstract concepts such as Love, Compassion, Integrity and Coachability. I realize it’s hard to “drop those on your foot.”

So the trick here is to use examples from your own life. Those can be just as concrete as a brick or a postman.

Tell us about that time you showed Love to the stranger. Talk about the time you chose to remain in Integrity with yourself, even though it meant pissing a friend off. Remind us about the Compassion you felt when you visited the hospital.

Or whatever it might be.

Illustrate your words with examples from your own life. That’s the trick to having your words remembered.

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Posted by John Onorato

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