Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Atlantic Monthly piece on writing concretely

Here’s my introduction in the Atlantic to the whys and wherefores of teaching students to write concretely.  Read the whole thing for the detailed argument.

The short summary is this, however. Abstract ideas are always related to objects fundamentally. You can understand this just by thinking about it, but brain studies with MRI scanners also show that we usually deal with abstract words by bringing to mind the clusters of things we associate to. It’s pretty obvious. What’s really neat is that you can consciously use this fact to write more vividly. You can replace -ion words with clusters of things.

Where you say nutrition,” I can say “vitamin pills, labels on food containers, grapefruits, slabs of meat, liver and onions, onion soup, and hot buttery steam-cooked corn.”

Where you say hospitalization,” I can choose to say, “blood, needles, wrist bands with ID on them, women in flowered tunics with stethoscopes around their necks, paper forms on clipboards, gurneys, x-ray machines.”

Where some writer might say merely “My aunt was a perfect example of kindness,” you can choose to say “Aunt Mary’s red-and-black decorated kitchen, her weird clock that looked like a cat, her moisturized gleaming face and platinum hair, her tiny cheap house at the end of North Street near the tracks, her gravelly voice, her lip-stick-marked Pall Malls in the ashtray on the kitchen table.”



John G. Maguire
307 Market Street, #306
Lowell MA 01852