Sunday, April 25, 2010

Specific, Concrete Language, Part 2.

“We are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style” (Tom Stoppard).

Abstract words are words that denote an idea or concept that is not tangible or made of matter. You learn abstract words and their meanings in the same way you learn concrete words.

For example, before you had the ability to form words, you still experienced emotions. When your face darkened, your hands closed into fists, and your shrieks could be heard in space, your parent described your state as “angry,” “frustrated” or “uncomfortable.” Dad or Mom named your emotion for you, saying with great sympathy, “What’s wrong? Are you mad?” Over time, as you grew, you acquired a simple vocabulary for abstractions even before you were adept at sorting them.

Writers need a continuum of words for every abstraction, and they need a pantry stocked with images to help communicate abstractions for readers. Consider the case of “happiness:”

A toddler who has just successfully climbed his own little Everest—the living room couch—and snuggled in beside Dad may announce, “Feel good.” In another year, scaling the family couch to sit beside Dad may produce, “I am happy,” but at thirteen, the same kid will take the family couch for granted. Flopping on it will be a habit, not an accomplishment, and sitting next to Dad too childish. The teen’s happiness will be found in friends, texting, and social acceptance. Many years later, getting up from a low couch will be another Everest and sitting next to Dad only a fond memory that inspires feelings we call happiness.

From the example above, we can infer that abstractions such as happiness, love, faith, loyalty, and pride are moving targets, their meanings shifting and becoming more complex with every life experience. Therefore, writers must tie abstractions to concrete words to communicate clearly.

One of the most baffling abstract human experiences is love. What we mean when we say “I love you” depends upon the person’s relationship to us. A mother’s loving assertion may mean that she promises to accept, teach, guide, protect, and support. A young twenty-something may feel more desire than selfless concerns.

So how do we judge what “love” means to the people involved? The same way we judge character: by actions. We know others by their deeds.

Consider two scenes, featuring a man and woman, walking in the light of a hot sun. In both scenes, she squints against the harsh glare, but one man, seeing her discomfort, does nothing. He shoves his hands in his pockets, lowers his head, and pushes forward while the second man shifts his body to raise a hand, shielding her face, giving her the gift of shade. Which man cherishes his companion? The second, of course. We may infer that he loves the woman and can prove or disprove our inference by watching the two interact over time.

What can you infer from the following comparison between an implied abstraction (a feeling) and something concrete?

He is my anchor in a storm.

He makes her feel safe and secure. He cares enough for her to protect her from harm or fear. He loves her.

Comparisons are the basis of images such as the metaphor above. They link the unknown (usually an abstraction) to something known (usually a concrete word or action), and thereby, communicate meaning.

So, good writers do not tell readers that “he loves her.” Good writers show a man protecting a woman from a glaring sun. Effective writers link abstract words to concrete ones.

GUM: Grammar, Usage and Mechanics.

An excellent resource for correct grammar, usage and mechanics is a book entitled The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. You will find new copies, leather-bound and in paper, and you will find copies in used bookstores. Buy one and leave it in your briefcase. It is a handy reference for all sorts of questions that arise.

Reading Challenge:

Read anything from Shakespeare to comics, looking for abstractions made both specific and concrete. Copy the best of them on the left side of a divided piece of paper. To the right of each passage, write the conclusion that you drew from the comparison.

Writing Challenge:

Make abstractions concrete by showing them with actions or inventing images for them.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Specific, Concrete Language. Part 1.

“We are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style” (Tom Stoppard).

Close your eyes for a moment as you create a vivid picture of a tree in your mind. Is it tall or short? Full or scrawny? Does it have leaves or needles? Is it deep green in color or a ripe, full-bodied burgundy? Is it adorned with soft, downy snow, or is it weighed down by grackles? In other words, using the word “tree” in no way guarantees that your reader will imagine the tree you have in mind.

Although “tree” is a concrete word, it still fails to communicate clearly because it is not specific. Learning to be concrete and specific is the focus of this and next week’s lessons.

First, let’s review concrete versus abstract language: concrete words refer to things that are made of matter. You and I could walk hand in hand as I teach you about concrete language. In fact, this is exactly what your parents and elementary teachers did. As they named objects that exist, that are tangible and can be weighed, measured, or photographed, you learned the names of things.

For example, as you, a toddler, pointed at the colorful, winged creature fluttering by, your mother enunciated “butterfly,” thereby encouraging you to make the connection and later repeat the word. As you grew, “butterfly,” “doggie,” “puppy,” and “kitty cat” failed to describe the variety within each class or species. You noticed that a Great Dane is quite different from a fuzzy poodle; to a child two feet tall, the Great Dane must resemble a horse so the child seeks language as well as reassurance. Mom or Dad provides “dog” and “big dog” and “Great Dane.” In these ways, you acquired vocabulary. Through reading and listening in and out of school, your vocabulary continued to increase, your abilities to name concrete objects improved.

What you must now do, as a writer, is dig deeper to find the most precise name for the concrete thing in your message. Use the same inquiring eye with which you were born and learn the most exact name for a particular chair, desk, butterfly, dog, tree, and pony. Become familiar with experts and expert resources, including atlases, compendiums, search engines, the Oxford English Dictionary, thesauri, and synonym or antonym collections.

Sometimes, even if you have an exact word, it will still not be enough to communicate to a general audience. How many readers can imagine what a polyphemus moth looks like? In addition, sometimes, an exact word does not exist to describe the thing you have in mind. In these instances, you must become adept at description. Adding adjectives and phrases will help. For example:

The boy sat.

In this short sentence, “boy” is concrete, but not specific. The words do not insure that my reader will picture what I intend. I must challenge myself to create the exact picture I wish the reader to see. I must ask and answer questions: How old is this boy? Where is he? What is his posture?

The first-grade boy slumped in his oversized school desk, his toes brushing the scarred, dull linoleum floor.

Better? Yes. My reader now has a better idea about my message because I have added specific details and traded the verb “sat” for “slumped” to more accurately describe the little boy’s posture.

GUM: Grammar, Usage and Mechanics

When working to become concrete and specific, writers can create some very funny sentences if writers do not place the descriptive phrases correctly. Misplaced and dangling modifiers are everywhere. Good writers and readers spot them and know where the modifier should appear.

Here’s a sentence with an error:

A sniper shot the victim in the woods today.

This sentence says that a victim sustained an injury in his woods. I wonder if such an injury is fatal . . . ?

The corrected sentence should read:

Today, in the woods, a sniper killed the victim.

Here’s another error:

I enjoy romantic movies because love overcomes all problems to bring the unhappy couple together, such as “The Bounty Hunter” and “When Harry Met Sally.”

Lists or examples that begin with “such as” or “including” should be placed immediately after the noun they modify, describe, or illustrate:

I enjoy romantic movies such as “The Bounty Hunter” and “When Harry Met Sally” because love overcomes all problems to bring the unhappy couple together.

Proofread your own writing to detect misplaced phrases. One easy way to spot them is to read your sample from the last sentence to the first, working backwards. By taking the sentences out of order, you see them separately. Your own misplaced pharses then jump out at you.

Reading Challenge:

Search newspaper articles for misplaced phrases. Repair them.

Writing Challenge:

Practice making concrete words specific. Write at least 3 specific and concrete sentences every day.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Reflective Writing

Writing is a powerful aid to memory. Recording insights and perceptions allows you to live them anew. Make “I remember . . .” a frequent opening for daily writing practice.

Colleges and employers count on your memory, inviting you to recall events and experiences that have transformed you. Many essay prompts to admissions and awards could begin with “I remember . . . .”

The essay prompts below are paraphrases of college admissions essay and scholarship competition prompts gleaned over many, many years. As you read them, consider how many require a memory brought to life as evidence of your abilities to persevere and/or your sense of purpose. You may also wish to review the lessons from the Sunday, March 14, 2010 blog, entitled College and Scholarship Essays. Job Interviews, before you begin. Here are some sample prompts:

The face of the United States is changing. How has your community prepared you for the changes taking place?

Successful students know how to persevere. Briefly tell about a time when you had to persevere and explain what you learned by doing so.

Tell about a time when you set a goal and accomplished it. Explain what you learned about yourself as you worked to achieve your goal.

Wise men often declare that working for a reward is not as satisfying as the work itself. Tell about a time when you learned that the reward is less important than the work.

Goals and dreams walk hand in hand with obstacles and challenges. Explain how you have overcome obstacles and challenges to realize your goals.

In each of these five sample prompts, you must recall for the reader or interviewer an incident or period in your life, you must be able to reflect upon the moment, and you must explain what insights and confidence you gained from it. Usually, you must accomplish this in two, double-spaced pages or less.

Be ready for those moments. Practice by writing essays for each of the five prompts, and after you have written a first draft, be ruthless in editing it. Practice word economy as your revise. Cut out anything extraneous.

“I remember” can also open up endless memories:

I remember the day of my driver’s license test . . . .

I remember meeting the man I would marry . . . .

I remember meeting my best friend for life . . . .

I remember the most humiliating moment of my life . . . .

In these recollections, you meet your past self, and you meet the challenge of trying to make the memory live in all its complexity. How warm was the day? Was the moon full or a sliver? Was it cloudy or overcast? What were the aromas or odors of the moment? What was the taste in your mouth as you lived the moment? What and who could you see? What could you hear? What did your hands touch? How solid was the ground on which you stood or the seat in which you rested? In other words, bring your memory to life with each of the five senses (tactile, olfactory, gustatory, visual, and auditory). Good writers use all the senses to show us the moment and let us step inside it. As you write “I remembers,” add as many of the five senses as are appropriate for the moment you re-create.

GUM: Grammar, Usage and Mechanics

You should avoid contractions when writing for formal purposes. Writing required in school, admissions essays, scholarship entries, cover letters to potential employers, business letters, letters to the editor, and résumés are all examples of formal writing.

The added benefit of avoiding contractions is that you will also avoid mistakes we all make when we write and proofread hurriedly. These mistakes include:

1. using “there,” “their,” or “they’re” as if they are interchangeable
2. using “your” when you mean “you’re,” and “you’re” when you mean “your”

So send contractions packing for most writing. Obvious exceptions to this rule include your personal daily practice, creative writing tasks, and personal cards and letters.

Reading Challenge:

Choose authors who use “I remember” anecdotes to enrich their stories and essays. Annie Dillard is one; pick up Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. So are Dave Barry, John Grogan, John Ciardi, and so many, many more. “I remember” anecdotes are everywhere.

Writing Challenge:

Write an “I remember” story every day for the next week. Don’t worry about contractions or pronouns or active voice verbs. Do try to weave in as many of the five senses as you can, but above all, just enjoy telling your story.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Language Economy

Poetry is language at its simple best. Each word carries weight, drawing readers nearer to the sublime.

Poetry is language at its most pure, elemental form. Every word counts; any extraneous word has been severed.

Poetry challenges. It delights, it inspires, and it can be found anywhere, even in your own journals, essays, and letters.

While you practice learning to recognize the power of language, pause to invent a “found” poem. Here’s how:

Locate a highlighter. Open to any page from a newspaper, magazine, or your own work. Highlight the most specific, concrete nouns; alive, active verbs (more about these in today’s GUM lesson); and vivid adjectives. What remains will become the elements of a poem.

For example, here is paragraph from one of the samples posted on my website at

Standing for Hassan with Sohrab is Amir’s greatest challenge and finest act of redemption. The child is broken. He desires death rather than return to Afghanistan or spend a moment in any orphanage. His sorrow is greater than any adult can imagine bearing, yet Sohrab is a mere child. Amir falls to his knees in humble prayer, asking for strength, guidance, help, and each arrives. Soraya facilitates a way for Sohrab to immigrate to the U. S. while Amir humbly seeks a way to make amends to a child so damaged. Then Grace intervenes, and Sohrab sees a kite, long since banned in Afghanistan. The sight of something light, borne high against a sky by the winds from the Pacific over which the Golden Gate spans, captures the boy’s heart. The kite provides a bridge between Amir’s past and his present, between Hassan and Amir, between Amir and Sohrab. The kite represents Amir’s final triumph for he promises to run the kite for Sohrab “a thousand times over,” giving the gift of humble service to a friend in need, his foster son.

From this paragraph, I pull or highlight the following powerful words: redemption, child, broken, sorrow, imagine, humble, prayer, ask, strength, guidance, help, amends, Grace, light, captures, bridge, triumph, promises, friend, need.

With these words, I will illustrate a writing practice by inventing a haiku poem, consisting of 17 syllables, organized in three lines: 5 for the first, 7 for the second, and 5 for the third.

Sorrow. Child broken.
Pray. Ask for the light of Grace.
Imagine triumph.

Like the exercise last week, using classified ads, this exercise requires that you identify words that have power, then organize them to deliver a powerful message in very few words.

GUM: Grammar, Usage and Mechanics.

Last week and this week, I referred to alive, active verbs. In this GUM lesson, I would like to review active and passive verbs because in general, good writers should prefer active over passive.

Active: The batter hit the ball. (5 words)
Passive: The ball was hit by the batter. (7 words)

The same action takes place in each example, but the emphasis differs. Why would anyone not want to focus attention upon the batter? What would anyone want to use 7 words when 5 will do nicely? Well, sometimes, we like to use fuzzy English so that the person responsible is less obvious. For example:

Active: Today, the Committee passed legislation for progress. (7 words)
Passive: Legislation for progress was passed by the Committee today. (9 words)

In the first sentence, the “Committee” is front and center. It is the focus of the message. In the second sentence, “legislation for progress” is the focus, taking attention off the group responsible. Here, passive voice becomes not only a wordier construction, but one that obfuscates or at least de-emphasizes what the committee did.

Occasionally, however, passive voice adds a desirable effect. For example:

The boxer recoiled. He danced away on the balls of his feet while keeping his gloved hands high and ready. He moved closer to strike, but he was knocked out instead.

In the example above, the focus is consistently on the boxer even when the verb form switches from active to passive. Switching to passive at the end communicates the boxer’s defeat with an end punch in language.

Choose passive voice infrequently and only for a very good reason.

Reading Challenge:

Read the translated haiku of Basho, available online. He has mastered the art of word economy while making moments come alive.

Writing Challenge:

Use your own writing or that of another writer to create haiku that brings alive for the reader a moment, emotion, or idea.