Writing Toward the Specific

In an earlier post (Neater, Lighter, Quicker), we looked at a troublesome first-draft sentence which we improved by paring down its verbs and correcting some punctuation. I did not have space there to explain some other changes made to the sentence and I would like to discuss those here.

This was the original sentence: The argument crystalized and froze the boy’s psychological development which led to a breakdown in his education and homelife and interfered with his healthy psychological growth. And this was the first revision: The argument froze the boy’s psychological development, which led in turn to more troubles at home and difficulties at school, all interfering with his healthy psychological growth. Let’s look more closely now at the section that begins with the relative pronoun which. We have noted already that a comma before this relative pronoun is all important because the antecedent is not properly development, the noun immediately preceding the relative pronoun, but the idea of freezing that development, which is brought into the picture by the main verb froze. Commas cut, and one is necessary right here to separate the likely antecedent from the pronoun and keep the logic straight. The comma, then, signals that correct reference to the reader.

The other major change we made in this same relative clause, however, is not so much grammatical as rhetorical. The original used two abstract nouns, education and homelife. Nouns may be roughly classified into two large groups, concrete and abstract. Concrete nouns name things we perceive with our senses and abstract nouns name ideas, things we can perceive only with our mind. Concrete nouns are usually shorter, and abstract nouns often longer, ending frequently in suffixes like –tion, –ness, and –ity. But not always, which is why I say they may be roughly classified so. If, for example, that person over there is your friend, is the noun friend concrete? You may say, of course, because you see him, but you see a person, an individual, a man; a friend points to the value of friendship found in the friend, and values are abstract because they are a matter of our mind. Such logical distinctions come to bear on the stylistic choices we have to make, and different answers are possible. But considering them will hone our skills of perception and improve our writing and thinking. In the sentence we are revising here, though, there is no question; both education and homelife are clearly abstract, and settling with them the writer has missed a chance at writing a more powerful sentence.

Because good, clear, strong writing depends on saying exactly what we mean, looking for abstract nouns which we can convert to concrete ones is an important technique in revising. But that being true, it is not also true to say that if we could finally eliminate every abstract noun we found, we’d have the best composition possible. The problem is not that we use abstract nouns; it’s that we use too many of them. Some subjects, like the psychological one from which we take our example, are inherently more abstract than others; psychology, after all, is a matter of the psyche, the mind (or at least the mind conceived empirically). We may reasonably expect more abstractions in such a science, but we may also expect that such writers will specify things where they can in order to embody their high thoughts. And that, really, is the ideal of good writers and thinkers both: to think abstractly and express concretely.

So if we regard the two abstract nouns education and homelife each as a label on a box, we may reasonably ask, what’s in the box? In education, we found difficulties at school, and in homelife we found troubles at home. The nouns difficulties and troubles are plural, and although they both are generalities and still not very specific, they are in their own right concrete nouns, because an abstract noun can only be singular: I may tell you that kindness, an abstraction, is a virtue, but I will thank you for your kindnesses, your concrete acts which embodied that abstraction. And by then attaching an adjectival phrase to each, difficulties at school and troubles at home, we have made an attempt to be more specific in a context where being too specific might itself not be the right choice. For if we assume that this sentence appeared at the opening of a longer document, its purpose was introductory, to tell readers what was to come as they continued on. In that context, to be so specific as to say which led in turn to fighting constantly with his father and brother, and to bullying classmates every day would have focused attention exclusively on these acts when other difficulties and troubles abounded. Our revision, then, took the middle path.

And that is the kind of decision we must expect regularly to make in our revising. The two most important questions to keep in mind in both beginning and revising a document are who is my audience? and what is my purpose? The answers to these questions will control our revisions, and help us make choices—some quite subtle—that will bring our work closer to the goal of matching form to content.


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