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The Art of Descriptive Writing
Concrete v Abstract Writing
Descriptive writing is all about detail. The details we pick out and the way we describe them makes the difference between a story that is at and dull
, or full of life and interest. When writing a descriptive scene, remember the senses: the things we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Good writers are able to communicate very complex ideas simply by focussing on these concrete details
, describing them with care and precision.
Abstract writing deals in general ideas, while concrete writing focuses on particular details. At an abstract level, we might talk about ‘organic life’. I’m not sure what image that conjures up for you – probably something different for each of us. I could re ne that abstract idea by speaking of a ‘plant’. That narrows things down a little, but it’ still fairly abstract, How about a ‘tree’? We’re getting more concrete now, but we could go further. We could speak of an ‘oak tree’. Further still, we could identify this particular oak tree as ‘a sapling’.
Now we’re getting somewhere. We’ve gone from the very broad, abstract concept of organic life, right through to the concrete and particular example of an oak sapling. At this might start to describe our sapling in order to make it something you can clearly imagine – I could describe it as a ‘sickly specimen’ or as a ‘lithe and youthful tree’; I could describe its ‘satin skin, reptilian green’, or perhaps ‘the shy lime-green leaves unfurling at the tips of the top-most branches’ etc. Suddenly, the sapling is something we can sense – an image that is alive and present to us in a way that an abstract idea can never be.
It’s all too easy to burrow down in the abstract level when we write about complex emotions and feelings – because abstractions are safe. But for that reason they’re not very interesting
, certainly not as engaging as a concrete image we can visualise and relate to.
Sometimes abstract language works well, and can even be quite beautiful – e.g. we hear it a lot in religious contexts: ‘My soul magni es the Lord’, ‘I was overcome by the awesome love of God’, ‘In my youth I turned my back on God’, or some similar sentiment. But what does any of that mean? To someone who hasn’t had the kind of experience these statements are referring to, such abstract language can easily sound like empty words. If we don’t give our readers something concrete to engage with, they will quickly lose interest, and the powerful ideas we have in mind will fail to hit home the way we want them to.
If your writing is becoming too abstract, return to the senses to give your story some colour, some body, some life! Use a simile or a metaphor to provide the reader with a concrete image – something they can see, smell, taste, or hear –to illustrate and so make accessible the meaning you have in mind.