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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles

The Wrong Way of Writing: Using Abstract Words

If you had to remember one hard, immutable, unalterable, inflexible, unbending, unbreakable, ex-cathedra rule for writing, which there isn't, it should be this:

When you write, use specific and concrete words wherever you can and general and abstract ones when you have to.

Or say it is this way: Make specific and concrete words carry your general-abstract ideas.

All good writers write that way, simply because people read best and easiest that way.

Vague and abstract words also carry the added danger of being misleading ... misread ... misinterpreted.

Professor Joseph Ryan, a management expert, said of bosses who write in the devious ways of abstraction:

"If they hold a supervisory position that requires them to write information for others to read, understand, and take action on, then they have a painful obligation to be exact, clear, and precise; that if they are indefinite and vague they force the reader to make a judgment on what they probably meant to say. If he misreads the supervisor and does the wrong thing, then the bosses are to blame; he is not."

This is just another way of saying: If you can't write in the concrete, then it's safer for everyone concerned if you don't write at all. That way, nobody will get fouled up.

Moreover, if you really understood what general and abstract words do to the reader ...

... how they are full of so much meaning, contain so many indefinite notions, numbers, ideas, quantities, categories, conditions, qualities ...

... how they can mean everything without ever really meaning any thing ...

... if you really understood this, then you'd quit using them yourself and start wishing everyone else would do the same.

Whether you know it or not, you dislike abstract words as much as the next fellow, except, of course, when you're writing them. They're just too hard for your mind to handle, to get a fix on, to understand or to put into action.

When a writer bombards you with abstract words, he does to your mind what a shotgun blast does to a mirror. And looking for exact meaning in these general-abstract words is like looking for your face in the shotgun-shattered mirror. Your face is there all right—in whole, halves, hunks, parts, particles, and pieces—just like a writer's exact meaning is in his general-abstract words.

But even after a short time of this painful searching, any reader gets tired of looking for and piecing together meaning. He finds so little for so much looking, and he's never quite sure of the meaning he does get. He gets tired; he gets bored; he gets angry; he quits.

Abstract writers apparently do not realize what they do to the reader's mind: How their indefinite words spread and multiply meanings so far and wide .... how the reader's imagination has to multiply images at more frames a second than a movie camera to keep up with the ever-spreading meanings.

And when the reader is through "tracking" these abstract words, he has to sift through the multiplied meanings, sort out the myriads of mental images, and then try to match up those that seem to belong together.

Now you can see how dangerous it is if a writer gets general and abstract in an information or instruction memo the reader is supposed to understand and take action on—but can't until he sifts and sorts and matches and tries all the various combinations and possible combinations of meanings that the abstract words produced in his mind.

The high cost of abstraction comes not in getting the words written; for most abstract writers usually write easily and quickly, and therefore cheaply. The cost comes in getting those abstract words read, understood, interpreted, passed on, and translated into action.

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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles





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