Leave Abstracts to the Artists

Even if you don’t know much about art (it’s OK, I don’t either), you probably have an opinion of abstract art. Some people love it, some hate it, and still others are just plain bewildered, wondering what the point of it is.

Abstraction generally means distancing an idea from the thing in objective reality that it refers to. So in art, an abstract depiction doesn’t correspond to all (or in some cases, any) points of reference that we can see out there in the world. Perhaps it’s this characteristic of abstract art that turns some people off.

But abstraction isn’t just for art; you can find it in writing too.  Abstract nouns name concepts, beliefs, qualities, attributes, and ideas—that is, things we can’t touch. Examples include words such as perspective, concept, condition, issue, process, role, strategy, and tendency.

Some abstract nouns are called nominalizations because they are derived from verbs that have been turned into nouns. You can easily recognize many of these by their endings, such as ance, -ment, -tion, or -ing: prevention, avoidance, assertion, presentation, assessment, comprehension, and exclusion.

What do those sorts of words remind you of? Maybe a legal document, a government website, or an academic research paper? That’s precisely why those types of writing are often difficult to read and understand—because they’re filled with abstract nouns.

Let’s look at an example:

Local government is currently operating in a climate of expectation to constrain expenditure, increase productivity, and improve the level of service to the community.

Where are the abstract nouns, the intangibles?

Local government is currently operating in a climate of expectation to constrain expenditure, increase productivity, and improve the level of service to the community.

For our purposes today, let’s zero in on the underlined words. (Note that “government” and “community” are also abstract nouns, but we’ll leave them alone since we don’t have much context here.) You can begin to see the problem of using so many abstract nouns—namely, what exactly does this sentence mean? My best guess is something like this:

Local government currently expects to cut spending, produce more [what?], and provide better services to the community.

Much clearer, isn’t it? (But we still don’t know what the local government is supposed to produce more of, nor what services they are to provide.)

Notice how we’ve reversed the nominalizations back to verbs: “expects” instead of “climate of expectation” and “produce more…” instead of “increase productivity.” Remember that verbs describe action, which makes for clearer, more active, and more interesting sentences.

The word “spending” is also an abstract noun like “expenditure,” but it’s clearer because it’s a simpler word. It also comes more directly from a verb, since it’s a verbal noun, also known as a gerund.

Finally, “provide better services” wins over “improve level of service” because it is more concrete (the opposite of abstract). Think about it: just what is a “level” anyway, and how do you “improve” one? This points up another hallmark of abstract nouns: they are often paired with a relatively empty verb, such as make, do, have, bring, put, and take. We had another example of such a verb plus abstract noun in this example: “increase productivity” instead of “produce more…”

Did you notice anything else about our example? Did you get the feeling while reading it that maybe the writer was trying to hide something? Of course, we can’t tell for sure in this case, but now you can see another danger of writing this way. Do you want your readers to think you are keeping something from them?

If you’d like to dive down a very deep rabbit hole, there’s plenty of great information out there on abstraction in writing and the ways it’s used to evade or conceal the truth. The example above comes from a somewhat dated but still interesting book called Doublespeak by William Lutz. (I am not an Amazon affiliate and do not make any money from this endorsement.) For more good bad examples you can also check out this link as well as this one (scroll down to get to the article). 

Finally, if you’re really brave and would like to see what is quite possibly the absolute worst example of abstract writing ever, check out this monster. 

This link is NOT for the faint of heart—you have been warned!  

Please feel free to comment below with your own examples of abstractions. Can you beat that final example? 😊

Expletives Deleted

If you, like me, are of a certain age, you can remember a time when most respectable publications did not print profanity. When it was necessary to acknowledge the presence of one of those forbidden seven words (warning: explicit content), publishers often inserted the phrase [expletive deleted]. Bolder editors would sometimes dare to give the reader a nudge, nudge, wink, wink by printing the first letter of the word in question, then replacing the remaining letters with asterisks.

But there’s another kind of expletive out there.

And as a matter of fact, I just used it, without having to censor anything. Did you catch it?

If your sentence starts with a variation of Here is… There are… It is… – that is a grammatical expletive. Expletives can weaken your writing because the words are empty and don’t add any meaning to the sentence.

Now that we know what the expletive is, how do we fix it? Unlike its racier cousin, we can’t redact this kind with asterisks. Usually you’ll have to rewrite the sentence. Let’s look at my example from above:

But there’s another kind of expletive out there.

This sentence is interesting–but a rewrite could make it even more provocative:

 Not all expletives are four-letter words.

Now you’ve really piqued your reader’s curiosity. He or she is bound to think, hey, I know all those words! What have I missed all these years? (And undoubtedly that reader will be disappointed to find out that we’re talking about grammar here, not some super-secret ultra-dirty language.)

Other possibilities for rewriting a sentence with an expletive include starting with the word “you” and including a verb (an action word). For example: 

Here is a list of the seven forbidden words: …

A possible rewrite with this solution:

You should not use these seven words: …

However, this doesn’t mean that you can never use an expletive. As with other topics we’ve covered, such as the use of adjectives and adverbs, you should carefully consider whether using an expletive is the best vehicle for the nuance you want to express. Used sparingly, expletives can be effective literary devices, as you can see in this article.

Feel free to comment below about expletives you find “in the wild” and whether you think they were used to good effect! And by the way, do you know what the term is for a string of symbols used to replace profanity, like on our upset emoji above? It’s called a grawlix

Blast Off!

Ever since my husband and I moved to Orlando, Florida, at the beginning of December last year, we’d been looking forward to attending space launches, since Cape Canaveral is less than an hour’s drive from our home. A few weeks ago we got to fulfill that lifelong dream not just once, but twice – we saw the launch of Space X Falcon 9 on December 16th – AND the launch of the Atlas V with the Starliner capsule on December 20th!

A launch takes a lot of power and an incredible amount of support work on the ground. Everything is directed to one goal: to get that rocket into the air with no wasted effort.

It got me thinking how writing with maximum impact should be like a rocket launch: blasting off powerfully with no fooling around. We often load up sentences, especially at the beginning, with empty hedge words that could result in a mission abort: 

 It seems that the U.S. still leads the world in space technology.  

This sentence barely makes it off the pad. Starting off with “It seems that…” tells the reader nothing. If you, the writer, are confident of your facts, just say so:

The U.S. still leads the world in space technology.

If there are valid reasons that the statement needs to be qualified, spell them out:

Although the U.S. still seems to lead the world in space technology, China’s recent advances in rocket design may soon threaten American dominance.

(Note that I don’t know if this sentence is accurate; I’m just making up an example to illustrate my editorial point. Any rocket scientists out there are more than welcome to correct my facts.)

So be on the lookout for these hedge words, among many others. Notice that some can have variations:

almost; apparently; comparatively; fairly; in part; it could be argued that…; it seems that…; I/we/most people think that…; I would argue that…; nearly; partially; predominantly; presumably; rather; relatively; seemingly; so to speak; some say that…; somewhat; sort of; to a certain degree; to some extent

Please feel free to comment below on your efforts to jettison hedge words from your writing. For a very long time I struggled with “apparently.” I’m mostly over it now, although sometimes I still come close to having to scrub the mission if I try to write when I’m tired! 

Do You Really Need That “Really”?

An easy yet effective way to tighten your writing and boost its impact is to examine all your adjectives and adverbs with a critical eye. You’ll find that many can be rewritten or even removed without any damage to your message.

First, a quick grammar review: Adjectives are words that describe nouns (persons, places, or things), such as “big,” “little,” color words, characteristics such as “hairy,” “interesting,” “unusual,” and so on.  

Adverbs describe verbs (action words), adjectives, or even other adverbs. Many adverbs are easy to spot because they end in -ly – such as “really,” “quickly,” “carefully”…you get the idea. However, watch out one extremely common adverb that doesn’t end in -ly: “very,” which can almost always be rewritten or cut.

For example:  

Spongebob lives in a really big yellow pineapple, next door to his good friend Patrick’s rock.

First, let’s identify the adjectives: “big” and “yellow” describe “pineapple,” and “good” describes “friend.” We have just one adverb – “really” – which describes the adjective “big.”

In this sentence, you can cut “really.” An even better edit would be to change “really big” to a single word that captures the same idea, such as “huge” or “giant.”

You don’t need “yellow” because pineapples usually are yellow. But if Spongebob someday decides to paint his house blue, that would be worth including, since that’s unusual.

The adjective “good” for “friend” is probably unnecessary, except maybe if you’re drawing a comparison between Patrick and another one of Spongebob’s friends.

So a good rewrite of this sentence might look like:

Spongebob lives in a huge pineapple, next door to his friend Patrick’s rock.

How about another one:

Squidward constantly gets tired of all the very loud noise that Spongebob and Patrick make when they play funny, silly games.

Again, where are the adjectives? “Loud” describes “noise,” and “funny” and “silly” both describe “games.” And the adverbs? “Constantly” describes “gets tired,” and “very” describes “loud.”

Considering “constantly,” this is another case when a rewrite of the whole phrase is a good solution. Instead of “constantly gets tired of,” how about something like “is fed up with”?

Saying that “noise” is “loud” is redundant. And the addition of “very” puts this phrase over the top. Again, look for one precise word that captures the entire idea, such as “ruckus.”

Finally, you don’t need both “funny” and “silly” to describe the games – pick whichever one you want to emphasize more.

So this sentence could be rewritten:

Squidward is fed up with all the ruckus that Spongebob and Patrick make when they play silly games.

These are examples which I made obvious in order to make the point, but if you start giving your adjectives and adverbs a critical eye, you will spot areas where you can hone your wording to make it more precise.

As you find examples “in the wild,” either in your own writing or elsewhere, please share them in the comments. And as always, if you have any questions, please contact me at steph@tightprose.com!