18 Abstract to Concrete to Abstract to Concrete


This is one of the most complex exercise I’ve ever devised. I’ve assigned it in a number of classes, and many students struggle with it, but I think it’s worth giving it a shot because it will help you make a vitally important distinction for clear and effective communication: the distinction between abstract and concrete words.


If you’re uncertain what “abstract” and “concrete” mean, see this page for definitions and examples. You cannot do this exercise effectively if you don’t have a solid grasp of what those two terms mean.


1. Choose a passage from a textbook or handbook of some sort — something that has lots of abstract language in it. Advanced textbooks in philosophy, science, math, statistics, economics, engineering, etc. often work well for this. Also, really theoretical writings, like Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a goldmine for abstract writing…

2. Copy this passage into a blank document. We’ll call this Passage A. (You might even want to write that at the top…)

3.  Skip some lines (or create a new document), write the words “Passage B” at the top, and then rewrite Passage A with concrete nouns and lively verbs. If the meaning changes, that’s okay (probably inevitable), but try to stick to the original meaning as much as you can.

4. Take some time away from this piece of writing, even if it’s just an hour. Do your best to forget it.

5. Skip some lines or create a new document. Write “Passage C” at the top. Rewrite Passage B into abstract terms without looking back at Passage A. Thus, you’re translating your translation — but don’t try to copy the original. Forget the original. The goal is to see what happens when you move your concrete writing into your own sort of abstract writing.

6. Take some time away from this piece of writing.

7. Skip somes lines or start a new page or document. Write “Passage D” at the top. Now translate Passage C into a concrete passage.  (Yes, you’re doing to your new piece of abstract writing what you did to the original piece of abstract writing.)

8. Read over all four passages.  Skip some lines or open a new document and write “Response” at the top. Write about which of the 4 passages you like best.  Why? Write about your experience of doing the exercise. What did you see and learn? If it was especially tough for you to do, what did you learn from your struggles? This piece of writing should be at least 250 words long.


As I said, most people I’ve given this exercise to have struggled with it, and hardly any have been able to follow the guidelines strictly. It doesn’t really matter, though. It’s the effort of moving from abstract to concrete and back again that makes this exercise valuable, and the actual written product is much less important.

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