Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

Revising for Concreteness

Revising for Concreteness

 

REVISING FOR CONCRETENESS

 

            Effective writing means skillfully navigating among several different levels of generality. I can refer to the same cat as:

Animal (very general)          

     Domestic animal  (still general)               

          Cat (still general, though less so)             

               Russian blue (a type of cat, still a category)                

                     “Monkeyboy” (a single individual cat)

             Which choice I make depends upon the context. If I want my reader to see this cat rather than simply to have the idea “cat,” however, I will choose the most specific alternative—that is, I’ll come down the ladder of generality—and then likely add some individualizing description (e.g., “lithe, yellow-eyed Monkeyboy”). Concrete, specific  language appeals to the senses and generates energy. It involves the reader in the real world, not just the abstract realm of the mind.

            Concreteness in an academic context means providing specific examples of what you’re writing about. When students err in academic papers, it is often by not providing such examples—whether this means facts, details, or statistics. The result can be writing which is general (and thus likely uninteresting), and also unconvincing, because real evidence hasn’t been provided.

            Take the following paragraph:

            "Certain biological changes which occur as we grow older are apparent whenever you look at an old person. These age changes in the surface of the body are gradual, and vary according to diet, genetic factors, even climate. Like all other aspects of aging, it is not the biological changes themselves (because they are quite natural) but the subsequent changes in self-regard which have the most impact on the individual."

            The paragraph is focused and grammatically correct, but too general. A reader is likely to want concrete examples of both “biological changes” and “changes in self-regard,” not simply to make the reading more interesting—which is one function of specific details—but to clarify and validate the generalizations the writer is making.

            Let’s now look at a revised version of the paragraph which attempts to remedy the problem.

            "Certain biological changes which occur as we grow older are apparent whenever you look at an old person. The hair becomes thin, brittle, dull, and gray. The skin becomes paler and may become blotchy; it takes on a parchment-like texture and loses its elasticity. The loss of subcutaneous fat and elastic tissue leads to a wrinkled appearance. Sweat glands activity and oil secretion decrease and the skin may look dry and scaly. These age changes in the surface of the body are gradual, and vary according to diet, genetic factors, even climate. Like all other aspects of aging, it is not the biological changes themselves (because they are quite natural) but the subsequent changes in self-regard which have the most impact on the individual. Gray hair can be softening and becoming to a woman, and look quite distinguished on a man. Yet the individual may resent the change, and regard gray hair as the external sign of all the internal effects—slowness, muscular weakness, waning sexual powers."

            When revising, ask yourself:

  • Have I used specific words?
  • Have I used concrete words (think of the above ladder of generality. You can probably provide more concrete variants of many of your nouns)?
  • Have I provided enough relevant detail?
  • Have I used sensory detail (where appropriate)?