concrete not abstract

Abstract writing is the curse of charities and non-profits. It clogs up the brain, numbing thought and blocking understanding. It’s this kind of thing:

  •  building on existing partnerships across all sectors.
  •  key stakeholder engagement at the levels of policy, procedures and practice.
  •  transforming local services and making institutions more responsive to the needs of their communities.
  •  promoting the contribution to related issues including community safety, community involvement, affordable warmth, good health and social care.

It might sound like the way everyone else writes – formal, neutral and therefore professional. It may be free from grammatical errors. But it is hopeless at communicating anything. There is nothing for the reader’s mind to hold onto.

If you want people to be struck by what you are saying and remember it, you need words that are vivid and memorable. Those words are much more likely to be concrete than abstract. What is the difference?

A simple test is to ask whether you, and the reader, can visualise this. Does it bring a concrete image to mind? Is it something you can, with imagination, see, taste, smell, touch or hear? If you can, it is concrete.

  • The local authority is abstract. A named councillor is concrete.
  • Community engagement is abstract. A summer barbecue is concrete.
  • Lack of resources is abstract. A broken boiler we can’t afford to fix is concrete.

People are often aware of how abstraction deadens writing. Their response is understandable: “We need some case studies, some examples, something tangible that will bring it alive for readers.”

The theory is sound. Sadly, the tendency to abstraction is so entrenched that it spreads everywhere. I’ve seen case studies with sentences like:

  •  several of those contacted reported experiencing continence-management issues.
  •  the work of the group has had a definite positive impact on community spirit.
  •  the project used creative consultation techniques to support regeneration.

The problem is in the choice of words, the writing style, not the ostensible form.

It takes confidence, and some ingenuity, to recast this mind-numbing language into something detailed, precise and memorable. Writing in a different style can meet organisational resistance. There’s the technical challenge of determining what parts of the material are best told in a concrete, detailed way. And there may well be a knowledge gap – you can’t give examples if you don’t have any.

None of this is easy. But my experiencing of coaching is that people improve dramatically simply by giving themselves permission to write more vividly.

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