A student of mine was trying recently to describe the peculiar feeling many of us have unfortunately had since spending so much time in virtual conversations during the pandemic. The protagonist in his story complains that her digitized relationships “feel ghostly,” and when she ends yet another online chat, the friend she had been speaking to wonders whether “he, too, was one of those ghosts whose presence drifted away on the virtual ether. But he resolved to resume his life, making forays slowly into the world of socialization.”
Our object in writing is to re-present what we have lived or imagined, in short, life. And what characterizes life more than anything else is movement: people do things, things happen, the world changes. Our readers’ eyes hold steady on who is doing what, and that is why we have to guard ourselves against writing too many abstract nouns, the nouns that name ideas rather than things. To speak of socialization, as the writer of our illustration does in the last sentence, for example, points his readers’ attention to a conception, the abstraction of social interaction. But the notion of socialization or interaction is so general in this context that his readers now have to spend precious mental energy putting an image to the idea, for we have no picture in our mind for socialization and we think with images. We do have a mental image, though, for going to dinner with friends, walking on the beach with his dog, or shopping for groceries at a real supermarket—all very concrete forays that command and hold one’s attention.
It is, we should admit, difficult to be specific, and so our tendency in both writing and speaking is to shift the burden of thinking concretely onto the other: you know what I mean, we’ll imply or even say aloud, and hope our readers or listeners can really put an image to our general statements. But to write well means to write precisely. And because that is difficult to achieve all at once, we should expect to spend a lot of time when we’re revising a draft, detecting abstractions and unearthing the images they hide. When we do, we’ll often find ourselves up against changing the structure of a sentence substantially, and we should be ready for that, because it can be sometimes so difficult getting something down on paper or screen at all, that we are loathe to change or delete what has cost us so dearly.
But change we must. So our writer might very well decide to incorporate infinitives after a colon in revising his last cumulative sentence: But he resolved to resume his life: to have dinner out with friends, or spend an afternoon at a café. Of if two specific examples do not seem to bring enough energy to the new resolve, he could follow a triadic structure after the colon, omitting the first conjunction to speed the list: But he resolved to resume his life: to have dinner out with friends, spend an afternoon at a café, or even shop in a real grocery store. Or, if the writer judges that the infinitives have, spend, and shop do not build enough energy, he might unfold each into a full clause: But he resolved to resume his life: he would have dinner out with friends more often, he would spend an afternoon at a café, or he would even shop in a real grocery store from time to time. And with that revision, our writer might very well judge he’s overshot the mark, and so preserve the full verb only in the first of the three clauses and settle with elliptical constructions in the other two: he would have dinner out with friends more often, spend an afternoon at a café, or even shop in a real grocery store from time to time.
Those are all substantial changes, but sometimes, too, changing merely a single word can turn a sentence around. When I first read this passage, I tripped over the word away in the second to last sentence: he, too, was one of those ghosts whose presence drifted away on the virtual ether. I read drifted away to mean left, or disappeared, but it couldn’t mean that, I thought, because remaining too long online is what is causing the presence of the ghost, and so to drift away would apparently resolve the problem of feeling ghostly. So why not drift about, and that would preserve the presence—and the subject—of perceiving oneself an electronic wraith.
Precision is difficult and precision takes time. It works by technique, analyzing what we’ve written and changing the form of our sentences, ever in the direction of specific action and movement and change—what characterize the life we’re writing about.