StreetWrites writers workshop presents information and examples on 
using concrete detail in writing.

Details, Details, Details

Reading most writing, including mine, it seems that it is easier to be abstract than to be specific. Abstracts condense many details into one generality. It takes less space to mention my garden than to mention my carrots and cabbage and baby tomatoes and nasturtiums and basil and thyme. But which is more vivid? If I say, "Natalie shopped carefully for fruit for her family," is that as descriptive as, "Natalie sniffed the flowery end of cantaloupes, thumped watermelons for ripe echoes, cradled peaches, testing for softness without bruising them ..."?

There are no trees in vivid poems and stories. There are slender young birches and spreading old oaks, dark green firs fuzzed with spring-green tips and fall maples tossing their leaves at you. My favorite writers never have "people" passing by, even in the background. There are elderly men in neat string ties walking in small, careful steps across marble floors and voluble, bearded taxi drivers who are studying physics in night school.

One of the arts of writing is to compress much into a word. But don't make it an abstract word. Expand into detail to make your writing more vivid.

This is also part of Show Don't Tell. Use concrete specific details to show what you are saying -- instead of summing it up in an abstract statement and handing it over to the reader like a memo. Readers actually like to work things out for themselves. One of my least favorite writers has a habit of telling readers exactly what every character is feeling and thinking in every paragraph. I find myself bored. I want her to show me a man talking to his son in stilted, awkward sentences while his son stares out the window, and let me figure out for myself how their relationship is doing.

You have to work at getting your readers to work—but they'll be grateful to you for it.


I wrote an example of the contrast between telling and showing.

Why do people hurt each other?
We're supposed to love our brother.
    You can't love somebody else.
    Until you learn to love yourself.

Jack dragged himself out of hungover sleep, scraped a dull razor over his flesh, and chugged a cup of bitter coffee that churned his stomache awake with new bile. He stomped his worn car into life again and slammed off to the job he hated. On his way out of the parking circle he sideswiped Mrs. Grange's mailbox, and she threw her door open to stand staring at him in old and tired anger. He flipped her off in automatic response.

    Love your neighbor as yourself.

That still needs work. "The job he hated" is abstract -- I need to identify a specific job with strongly negative connotations. (I also want to finish a positive contrast paragraph.) But audience response so far is that it gets the idea across.

Exercise Options

I'm going to give you several options in this exercise, because you may have different needs in the area of Abstract v.s. Concrete.

  1. Pick a poem or story of your own in which you used at least one abstract phrase or concept: peace, war, love, hatred, goodness, "fun on the beach" or "careful shopping." Find at least three concrete images that show what you were referring to. Rewrite your piece "showing" instead of "telling".

  2. Pick a poem from another source: public domain would be best, but since this is an educational list and we aren't going to sell any results, you may use Hallmark cards, poems from newspapers, or any other of the rich and varied sources of what I call "lecture poems"—poems about abstract concepts, in abstract words. It can be something you like very much and quote often, or something that has annoyed you ever since you had to chant it in Sunday school. Rewrite it anyway. List at least three concrete images with specific detail that demonstrate each concept or other abstract word in the poem, and then rewrite it.

  3. Wherever you are doing this exercise, look around you. Write 100 to 300 words describing your surroundings—or one particular object, if you prefer— in such detail that everyone here who has never been there can see it. For an extra challenge, try to avoid saying things like "book", "computer", "bookcase", "table"—describe the object without familiar words, and see if we can understand what it is by the detail you showed us.

Write On!
Anitra L. Freeman
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