For improved writing, think visually

When writing, think visually
To be engaging as a writer, continually ask yourself —  can my readers visualize what I am trying to communicate. The journalist’s maxim: Show, don’t tell will take you a long way to accomplish effective writing. Consider the following:I could write the girl was sad. Or, I could write: Little Sally Smith walked down the street, tears rolling down her cheeks, calling “Fido.” If you can picture what I am describing, then I have written vividly, which is a useful tool for keeping the reader interested.
Another tool in writing vividly is what I call the ladder of abstraction. Consider this: Can you see the following? “I brought my “things” with me.” You might have a guess, but you can’t accurately visualize my meaning because I was too vague. Vague terms are at the bottom of the ladder of abstraction; concrete terms are at the top. Many write with vague terms during the initial draft, but during the revision process, it is important to supplant vague terms with concrete terms. 
When I move slightly up the ladder, I change “things” to “lunch”. A little further up “lunch” becomes “apple and ham sandwich.” Way up at the top step of the ladder of abstraction is: “Four by five inch, honey-baked ham sandwich with lettuce and mayo on whole wheat with the crust cut off and a Granny Smith apple measuring 11 inches in circumference.”
The problem with the last extreme example is that being too concrete will bog the reader down in details and slow down the tempo of the story. The theme of your article will dictate how specific or concrete you need to be. If the story was about types of apples, then I’d include the descriptor “Granny Smith.” If the story was about my process for getting ready to teach, for example, I’d stop at: I brought my sandwich and apple with me. Remember your guide is always “Can my readers visualize what I am writing?” 
One more tool for writing vividly includes precision or using the exact word needed in that context. Spend time considering if you have strong nouns and verbs. Remember, it’s considered weak to prop up weak nouns with adjectives. It’s much better to say “palace” than large, fancy building. Similarly, use action verbs that convey your specific meaning. Instead of writing “said,” consider using “stated,” “explained,” “commented,” confessed,” “admitted,” or any of a hosts of verbs for attribution.  Here is a good rule of thumb: write to express, not impress.
If your goal when writing is to communicate effectively, it’s a good idea to think visually. Think of yourself as a mirror reflecting your ideas. Allow your readers to see what you’re thinking. Following these tools should help reduce misconceptions and improve clarity. 
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About robertstevenson

Dr. Robert Stevenson is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.
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8 Responses to For improved writing, think visually

  1. Lenka Bliss says:

    thanks 🙂 this is really helpful 🙂 but now you have me deleting sentences I try to write here 😀

  2. I’m so glad it was helpful. Don’t delete too much. I love your comments. 🙂

  3. wordforit says:

    That’s the clearest explanation for “show, don’t tell” I have ‘seen’. Had to go make myself a sandwich by the time I finished reading what was in your lunch, though! ;-))

    Excellent work on your blog, Robert, and I will visit as time allows. Will be sure to tell others, as well.

    Thank you for the invite!

  4. wordforit says:

    Ha, ha!! ‘make myself a sandwich’. . .you think the casual environment of e-mails and blogging will ruin me completely? To boot, I’m a southerner who has to remember some expressions are not universal.

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  7. T. says:

    Writing visually is hugely important.
    Are there any good ‘How To’ books giving plenty of examples?

  8. Bardo says:

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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