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Concrete words are “tangible.” You can touch, see, hear, smell, taste and paint a picture of the objects they describe. Abstract words are just the opposite. They make no mental connection to physical objects in the world. Many concrete words are derived from Anglo-Saxon and tend to be one syllable, more direct and blunt than abstract words, which are typically polysyllabic Latin words.
Concrete: rose, thimble, chair, paper, water, axe, dirt, chalk, telephone, milk
Abstract: occupation, intermittent, precept, offer, monograph, epilogue, aspect
A mix of both types, with an emphasis on concrete words, is best. People who overuse abstract words tend to be wordier.
William Faulkner: “[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
Hemingway’s response: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
We’ve all seen those lists with two columns: the first one consists of dozens of million-dollar “fancy” words like ascertain, circumvent, and endeavor. The second column is a list of ten-dollar “everyday” words—find out, avoid, and try—that are replacements for the fancy ones in the first column. The idea behind this writing tip is that if you use too many fancy words, you’ll sound like a pedant or stuffed shirt. But you need to view and apply these lists with a little common sense. When writing a document, if your Writer’s Intuition tells you that ascertain is the exact right word to use, then use it.
“When we were young and fast and invincible, the Road Runner was our hero. Impervious to danger, the Road Runner ran without tiring, scooted without fear and beep-beeped coolly like a blue James Bond. But as I look down now from this creaking tower of years, I see it was the Coyote who deserved my admiration. That TV show was never about the Road Runner. It was always about the Coyote. The Coyote was determined. Determined is a word much misunderstood. Obstinate people are not determined. They merely suffer from too much pride. Stubborn people are not determined. Stubbornness is willful ignorance. Determination is an unblinking willingness to pay the price as often as it must be paid. Determination is never losing sight of your objective, no matter what comes along to distract you. Determination is endurance. How about you? If Failure appears without warning and throws you onto the rocks below, will you happily crawl out of that smoking crater and go back to work?” Roy H. Williams, author, The Wizard of Ads.
Now… go start that big writing project you’ve been putting off.
“The time to begin writing an article [or any document] is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.” This is Twain’s humorous way of saying “writing is rewriting”—a tip we all know, but is so very hard to put into practice, especially when writing under a deadline. However, the more we hear it and practice it, the better chance this tip will become part of our writing process.
Tip: Don’t overuse the to be verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) or the have verb (have, has, had) in your sentences. When you edit your work, look for any forms of these verbs and replace them with stronger ones. Choose verbs that have specific meanings, so readers aren’t left with vague descriptions. For example, revise “The CEO has a positive effect on our company” to eliminate the weak has verb and revise the sentence so that it describes what the “positive effect” actually is: “The CEO brings strong leadership to our company.” Also, use the present and past tenses of verbs—it keeps your writing more immediate and “in the present”—instead of the present- and past-progressive tenses. For example, replace “She is thinking” with “She thinks” or “He is working” with “He works.”
Mark Twain wrote by following rules. His own. Here is one we should all follow: “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very. Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” This is a humorous way of saying, “Eliminate unnecessary words. Everything you write should be clear and concise.” Words we can all write by.
Vicarious means experiencing in your imagination what someone is actually feeling or doing.
For example, “Keith derived vicarious pleasure from the misfortune of the CFO, his office nemesis.“
Nemesis means an enemy or long-standing rival.
For example, “Keith considered the CFO his nemesis, ever since the person disallowed half the meals on his expense report.“
Bonhomie means good-natured friendliness; geniality.
For example, “Keith worked hard to create a bonhomie among his sales team.“
Surfeit means excess; overabundant supply.
For example, “The CEO presented a surfeit of ideas during the meeting, but Keith thought they were all foolish.“