Writing Suggestion: Think Concrete

This piece, by John Maguire, nails it. Learning to think concretely and write about objects makes writing much better.

As a college writing instructor, I have seen many students show up in a freshman comp class believing they can’t write, and their opinion is valid. They don’t realize that it’s because they lack certain skills that were common among college freshmen 40 years ago….

Like the teachers at New Dorp, I believe in conscious skill instruction and over the years have made my own list of missing skills. One is the skill of giving specific concrete examples in an essay. One might naturally assume that giving good concrete examples is unteachable, that it’s just an aspect of a student’s thinking, and that a student with good mind will use good examples in his or her essays. But it’s much more useful to regard the giving of examples as a skill, because then you can find ways to train for it.

I’m going to explain one way to do it.

How should one train students to give good, vivid examples in their writing? Should you tell them, Be more specific? I used to do that but I don’t any more, because it’s too vague, not operational. Today I give students a shortcut. I say, “Write physically. Write with physical objects. Put physical objects in your essay.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Prodigal Daughter

    Interesting. I’m in PR and I have been doing this for years because I’m tasked with taking unfamiliar, abstract ideas and making them easily understandable to the average reader (often at a 5th grade level!) I have felt that it’s easier to explain an abstract idea if you can make it relatable to the average reader. For instance, I once wrote the importance of an entire industry working together to create industry wide standards because it would help everyone in the industry achieve convenience, ease and business success. And I used the illustration of how we as consumers can use our bank ATM card at any bank’s ATM (which is convenient and easy) because banks worked together to create industry-wide ATM standards. If they hadn’t done that, we’d still be writing checks and cashing or finding our specific bank’s ATM every time we wanted cash.

    When I started writing this way, it was because I heard so many times that our PR pieces were dry and boring. So, I figured that injecting something from the everyday that related to the topic somehow would help create interest in the often dry and boring topics I had to write about. Sure enough, I started to get positive feedback about how the pieces were more interesting.


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