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Concrete writing: A descriptive feast for the senses

by | Sep 3, 2018 | High school, Teaching Homeschool Writing

“One of the cornerstones of powerful writing is the use of concrete details that can tell your story for you. I don’t care if you’re writing a sales letter, a blog post or a short story for The New Yorker, you need details.” ~Sonia Simone, Copyblogger.com

Using concrete writing, middle and high school students can add sensory, descriptive details that hold readers’ attention with strong mental images.

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Concrete writing transports us into a story like nothing else. It’s the key that unlocks the door of the reader’s imagination.

If your teens’ papers are vague and sketchy, what happens? They lose their readers, who come away without a clear understanding of the characters, setting, or event. Instead, a piece of writing should contain specific, concrete details. Why? To hold the readers’ attention and leave a mental picture of the topics the writer is discussing.

Choose Words Wisely

Concrete writing engages the senses. Descriptive and narrative writing that employs strong, colorful word choices lets readers experience an object, setting, or situation through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

Robust nouns and active verbs always pack more punch than weak ones that are simply preceded by a string of adjectives or adverbs. Not to say they don’t have their place, but adjectives and adverbs should boost—rather than define—the words they modify.

Search for Word Pictures

The Fellowship of the Ring

It’s fun to ask your students to search for descriptive, concrete passages in the books they’re reading, such as this excerpt from The Fellowship of the Ring [aff] by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Down the face of the precipice, sheer and almost smooth it seemed in the pale moonlight, a small black shape was moving with its thin limbs splayed out. Maybe its soft clinging hands and toes were finding crevices and holds that no hobbit could ever have seen or used, but it looked as if it was just creeping down on sticky pads, like some large prowling thing of insect-kind. And it was coming down head first, as if it was smelling its way. Now and again it lifted its head slowly, turning it right back on its long skinny neck, and the hobbits caught a glimpse of the two small pale gleaming lights, its eyes that blinked at the moon for a moment and then were quickly lidded again.

Notice how Tolkien paints a haunting image of Gollum as he makes his wily approach. Can’t you just imagine that scene in your mind’s eye? Can you see the thin padded fingers and toes and feel the cool smoothness of the rocks in the weak moonlight? Can you picture the secretive, insect-like prowler with the luminous eyes?

The Miracle at Speedy Motors

This passage from The Miracle at Speedy Motors [aff] by Alexander McCall Smith describes a different scene altogether:

Two days passed—two days in which more rain fell, great cloudbursts of rain, drenching the length and breadth of Botswana. People held their breath in gratitude, hardly daring to speak of the deluge, lest it should suddenly stop and the dryness return. The rivers, for long months little more than dusty beds of rust-coloured sand, appeared again, filled to overflowing in some cases, twisting snakes of mud-brown water moving across the plains…. The bush, a dessicated brown before the storms, turned green overnight, as the shoots of dormant plants thrust their way through the soil. Flowers followed, tiny yellow flowers, spreading like a dusting of gold across the land.

Powerful verbs—drenching, thrust, spreading—propel this passage along. Imagery of the river as a snake and flowers as gold dust appeal to the senses. The reader feels the quench of thirst and drought. Such is the power of concrete writing.

Your teens can learn to write more vividly too. For starters, encourage them to:

  • Recognize the importance of using specific vocabulary.
  • Pay attention to detail.
  • Add more description.
  • Replace tired, vague words.

Introduce the Thesaurus

A thesaurus is a writer’s best friend (my all-time favorite is The Synonym Finder [aff] by Rodale). A thesaurus will help your kids find synonyms for repeated words that keep cropping up in the writing. It can also help them find more specific words to replace dull words that contribute to boring prose.

WriteShop I Student WorkbookAnd if you’re looking for curriculum to help them write more descriptively, consider WriteShop I for grades 6-10. It offers many lessons on concrete description that will draw out the best in your teen writers and make their prose sparkle with interesting, colorful vocabulary!

Photo: Liz West, courtesy of Creative Commons