Can You Drop It on Your Foot?

Jun 02, 2011 | 

John Maguire

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Can You Drop It on Your Foot?

Jun 02, 2011 | 

John Maguire



We college writing teachers don’t have much time to talk about the craft of writing or teaching writing, but sometimes it does happen. Sometimes brief conversations occur in the crowded cubicles. Usually I can’t gain much traction for the topic I really love: writing with objects. “It’s important to write physically,” I say, “don’t you think, even in Freshman Comp?”  

Eyes glaze over, though. I’m going against the conventional wisdom that says students have to handle abstract ideas, and what the heck does writing physically have to do with that? I recall one chat I had with my friend Bernadette on the fourth floor of the Engineering Hall, between classes.

“Ideas are what matter,” she said at that time. “Getting them to define and handle ideas is what’s important, not things.” She was confident of her point.

I thought she was wrong, but the students were streaming by, and I had no time to counter-argue. I knew where she was coming from—her assumptions—and I wanted to say:  When you boil it down, Bernadette, all abstract ideas derive from objects and you can approach abstract ideas that way. You can teach students to approach abstract ideas from the direction of objects.  I wanted to remind her that abstractions are what you get when you pull back from (abstract from) concrete reality, from the world of things. But she was on her way to class, and we never did finish the discussion.

Student papers are often unreadable not only because their grammar is bad, and sentences incomplete, but also because they are way, way too abstract. Abstractions really trap students. Assigned to write about some idea, students get caught in the sphere of abstract words and stay there. Abstract words multiply on the page in unpleasant clusters. If you ask freshmen to write about, say, The relationship between wealth and productivity in a market society, watch out. Few will notice that the four abstract terms relationship, wealth, productivity and market society need definition or examples. They will just move those abstract terms around like checkers on a board, repeating them, and hoping through repetition that something will be said. The resulting paper will be mush.

The classic writers on style have talked about this problem going on a hundred years. Henry Fowler coined the term “abstractitis” for this multiplication of abstractions, about which he said:

A writer uses abstract words because his thoughts are cloudy; the habit of using them clouds his thoughts still further; he may end by concealing his meaning not only from his readers but also from himself.

In “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell restates the theme, but explains how concrete objects are involved:

When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit. When you think of something abstract, you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.

Fowler’s advice to the writer was to strike out all the  –ion words possible, to put every such word on trial. Orwell went a step further than Fowler, actually advising writers to start wordlessly, to think of a visual thing, and then to try to find words that fit it.

If the professional writers whom Fowler and Orwell addressed had to be warned off from over-abstraction, how much more do freshmen writers need that advice! Yet the college writing textbooks on the whole say nothing about abstractitis, mentioning it at most only in passing.  And instructors do not focus on over-abstraction, even though that’s the major problem freshmen writers have.  

An alternate approach might be to start the course with physical objects, training students to write with objects, and to understand that every abstract idea summarizes a set of physical facts. I do in fact take that approach. “If you are writing about markets, recognize that market is an abstract idea, and find a bunch of objects that relate to it,” I say. “Give me concrete nouns. Show me a wooden roadside stand with corn and green peppers on it, if you want. Show me a supermarket displaying six kinds of oranges under halogen lights. Show me a stock exchange floor where bids are shouted and answered.”

“What is a concrete noun?” a student might ask.

“It’s something you can drop on your foot,” I always answer. “It’s that simple.”

“So if I am writing about markets, productivity and wealth, I am going to….”

“Yes indeed—you are going to write with things you can drop on your foot, and people, too. Green peppers, ears of corn, windshield wipers, or a grimy mechanic changing your car’s oil. No matter how abstract your topic, how intangible, your first step is to find things you can drop on your foot.” 

Students led into writing this way at the start of a course—writing about abstract ideas in terms of concrete objects—find it strange at first, but they are pleased that the task is actually doable. They don’t understand why this bias toward the physical matters nor why it works. But they will learn after six or eight weeks of practice that it does work; about that time they start to smile because their thinking on paper is clearer, they can see what they are talking about, and their writing has become vivid. 

John Maguire teaches college writing, most recently as an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. He wrote the Newsweek College Writing Guide. His email is maguirejohn[at]comcast[dot]net.

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