Ask students to write about objects

John G. Maguire, Middlesex Community College

Many student papers are unreadable because they are way, way too abstract. When assigned to write about some idea, students can’t think of examples easily so they just keep repeating the idea word they’ve been given to write about. They’re caught in the sphere of ethereal ideas, they cannot get out, and they write painful-to-read mush.

Therefore, I begin a writing course with physical objects. The opposite of an abstraction is an object—right? If you want students to avoid over-abstraction, why not train them from the outset to write concretely?

So I demand physical things, from the first day of class: “Write with concrete nouns!"

“What is a concrete noun?" a student will 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 – no matter what you are writing about in this course, you are going to put in 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.”

The lovely thing about writing with things you can drop on your foot is that everyone loves it, the good writers and the bad. Everyone finds it interesting. Writing about abstract ideas in terms of concrete objects is strange at first, but it is doable. And as you can guess, the papers that result are far more concrete and vivid and enjoyable to read. I stick with the drop-on-your-foot theme for a whole semester and it produces great writers.

The pedagogy derives from the insights about concreteness and abstraction found in S.I. Hayakawa's 1949 book, Language in Thought and Action.

More details are given at

Another account of this pedagogy is at: