In the final part of this series on writing for the child, I want to talk about my third strategy for, well, writing for children! In Part II of this series, I gave examples from children’s books that use simpler, but not simple language; in Part III I used A Series of Unfortunate Events to demonstrate how authors can use “known” and “unknown” words to help child readers build larger lexicons. For the final installment of this series, I’m going personal (!) in order to show you how using concrete instead of abstract language can help child readers–and adults, for that matter–grasp complex ideas and themes.
Use concrete instead of abstract language
When I first started writing for children, I had been writing about children through literary criticism. My head was as full of academic terms and theories as it was of fantastical images and half-formed ideas. When I shared my work with my writer-in-crime and blog partner, Julie, she noted that despite simple sentence structure, the writing was a bit difficult to comprehend. She suggested that the issue was not with the complex ideas and that the fix was not necessarily simple sentences. The language I was using was too abstract. She suggested that perhaps child readers would prefer more concrete and immediate descriptions of feelings and events. Let me show you Julie’s comment to me and then how I revised the issue in one sentence
“Overall … for your most important themes, it seems you’re burying what’s possible for readers in abstract language. For instance, I’ve seen “reality” referenced throughout this section. “Reality” is not an easy concept for anyone to grasp. Just look at neuroscience and theology. But, humans can grapple with it more meaningfully if instead of using the word “reality” you invoke a sense of reality with [concrete] phrases…”
(Isn’t she fabulous?)
Here is one of the sentences Julie was talking about:
He especially liked the books where the characters themselves were allowed to slip into the story and those stories were allowed to come alive, to leap off the page and into reality.
The word and concept “reality” is what bothered Julie, and I agreed that it was not descriptive enough. After revising this sentence with more concrete language, it reads:
He especially liked the books where the characters themselves were allowed to slip into the story and those stories were allowed to come alive. One moment the barrier of a paper page would separate the imaginary from the person imagining and the next they would be standing side by side, breathing the same air, frowning at one another.
It is not perfect yet. All writers have their issues, and my particular problem is with writing concretely.
But I am getting closer.
Using physical descriptions—standing, breathing, frowning—helps ground the concept of reality in a manageable way for younger readers without abandoning the complexity of the idea and the experience.
Additionally, concrete language is more enticing, pulling readers into the experience so that they can’t stop reading at 3 am in morning even though they have work or school the next day. Concrete descriptions are the bricks that build your fictional world and keep it standing. After implementing Julie’s advice, I realized how much more active and interesting my writing became, how much more appealing (I hope!) to a child (or adult!) audience.
As I continue to work on my novel, I keep my philosophy of writing for the story and the necessity of writing for my audience at the core of my writing process.
Thank you for the series! This concept (abstract vs. concrete) is something I’ve found I’m using, maybe a little differently, when it comes to romance in middle grade. Because my narrator’s a boy, and the age group is what it is, I’ve found that instead of using a lot of abstract, feeling, longwinded, etc. descriptions of attraction, it’s so much more powerful when I go simple and leave a lot to subtext.
For example, instead of something like, “Every time he looked at her, a light burst in his stomach and butterflies fluttered around his head,” going with, “He’d eat popsicles with her on the steps of the Bait ‘N Stuff every day if he could,” or, “He wondered about what she wrote in her diary every day. Mostly, he wondered if any of it was about him.”
I think the challenge of going more concrete with the wording and leaving the abstract to the subtext is great for layering for children of different reading styles/abilities. And it also, I think, helps when working on voice too!
Thank you again for a thoughtful glimpse into this topic! Love it!
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Ah! I really like those concrete descriptions of emotion! Saying that he’d eat popsicles with her everyday is such a perfect way to express how he feels in a way that all readers will get. In this case, your concrete way of describing his emotions is so much more expressive and less cliché than abstract descriptions. Thank you for sharing with us, and I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed and perhaps benefited from these posts. 🙂
[…] discussion of vague language and tips for how to recognize and revise it, see my previous post on using concrete language when writing children’s […]