Concrete Writing

by Lisa Sledge

The WIFYR assistants met last weekend to plan the 2015 conference. Can I just say how excited I am to go back to a conference that has done so much to save my writing and build my confidence? I wish it was June already.

Cheri Pray Earl gave a great presentation on how to improve our writing. I took pages of notes. One thing she mentioned that really stuck with me is the importance of concrete rather than abstract writing.

It brought me back to my college days, studying poetry. William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) had a bit of an obsession with concreteness. And I love him for it. Here is my favorite of his poems:

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Beautiful, isn’t it? For me it conjures up all sorts of feelings, emotions, and even memories. A note on the kitchen table. Plums, icebox, cold, sweet, and that little bit of guilt that makes pleasure run deeper.

There is a chance, I realized last Saturday, that not everyone knows or understands what “concrete writing” means. Maybe you’ve heard the term before, but you can’t quite define it and you’re not sure you’d be able to recognize it in something you read.

I’m an English teacher. This is what I love. Indulge me for a moment.

Concrete writing relies on nouns, verbs, and vivid adjectives. It is a way of helping the reader look at ordinary things in a new light, makes the mundane stand out, and breathes life into what is easy to overlook.

Abstract writing is the cheap and lazy way to try and conjure up emotions in our readers. And guess what? It often doesn’t work. For example, I might write, “I ate the last plum and it tasted so good.” The phrase “so good” is empty. What does it represent? What emotions or feelings does it create? Nothing. And the “last plum”? Who cares if it was the last one. It doesn’t mean anything to me.

Inject power into your writing. Avoid abstract words such as “amazing”, “awesome”, “terrible”, “bad” or other vague constructions. Look through the world of your novel and highlight small objects and details in a way that will carry specific meaning and emotions to your readers.

Be concrete.

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