Concrete Details

The opposite of concrete details is abstractions. The concrete includes references to solid objects—anything you could see or touch. The abstract deals with ideas and thoughts.

The car was perfect.  The mere thought of it sent a thrill through her body.   She had to own it.  All through class, her mind traced its image over and over.  Her nervousness wouldn't let her do anything, life was a waste until the car was hers. 
Every beautiful square inch of candy-apple red paint shone in the bright morning sun.  Erin carressed its smooth lines with her eyes from the finger print-smeared school bus window.  From the thin red racing stripes running from bumper to shining bumper, to the lightly tinted windows, to the low-profile tires, this racing machine took her breath away.  At school, she could think of nothing else--algebra, English, even parenting just floated by.  At lunch, she couldn't eat.  "Probably best," she thought, pushing the plate of mystery meat and rubbery vegetables from her.  "My life is worth nothing until I have those car keys in my hand," Erin muttered.

Most people are better at thinking concretely (after all, we are surrounded by a very concrete world. Most people are classified as visual learners) than abstractly. Concrete details are therefore easier for readers to grasp (literally). Lucky for us, any abstraction can be explained through concrete details. You may have to use a metaphor or example, but concrete details can make your ideas clearer and easier to understand.

Using concrete details also makes your paper more interesting and more memorable. Because your readers’ minds are not so tied up trying to follow your ideas, they stay awake better and have better retention. If you have a section in your paper where readers get lost or bored out of their skulls, there’s a very high chance that you haven’t used many concrete details there. Toss a few in and you may just solve your problem.


One difficulty many students have in using concrete details is that they seem to have a fear of using too many. Instead, they often end up with far too few. Here’s a little trick I learned from teaching people to water ski. When we would finally get someone up on one ski, they were often afraid to ski outside of the wake or to try to lean and cut back and forth. Without their permission, we’d crank the boat up to 50 mph. If they were really scared, they could always let go of the rope. At 50 mph, the wake is only about two feet wide. When we’d slow back down to 30 mph, everything seemed easy and safe in comparison. So go ahead, get carried away. Write too many concrete details. When you’ve finished, it should be easier.

Here’s the kind of thing you might come up with:

If you have trouble coming up with more details, just close your eyes and try to envision it. If you have a hard time seeing things in your mind’s eye, map out the area on paper and write down the things you might find there. Take a few of those items and describe how they feel, look, taste, or act.

Here’s an example of an idea expressed both abstractly and concretely.


Young children are difficult to control and teach. Their minds have not yet developed the necessary skills to solve complex or even simple problems. Even so, their lives seem in no way incomplete. They live surrounded by unbounded mysteries and wonder. We could learn about life from children.


Young children often experience difficulty learning even the simplest lessons. Before a certain age, they can not grasp that a square peg will not fit into a round hole. They only know that they make noise when thrown against the wall. Even so, they live surrounded by unbounded mysteries and wonder. Their tiny hands reach out to grasp everything within reach. They don’t stop at touching, either, but most objects are immediately pulled into their mouths in an effort to experience life completely and fully—a lesson we could all learn from.

There’s nothing wrong with abstractions. Abstractions provide some of the richest knowledge and insight available and offer chances to solve difficult problems. And precisely because of their great value, they should be combined with concrete details to ensure their effective communication.


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