Why Concrete Language is Essential to Engaging Content

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on March 30
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Abstract-Concrete-B2B-Content-Writing-MarketScale.jpgOne of the most challenging aspects of developing effective B2B content involves the need to produce writing that speaks on two levels: On one level, content must engage the highly specialized language, or “jargon” (to risk an unnecessarily pejorative term) of professional audiences in niche markets; on another level, target audiences are often diverse, and content must consequently present material with the clarity necessary to remain accessible to a broader range of stakeholders.

Making the Abstract Concrete: The Challenge of Content Writing in Niche B2B Markets

In short, effective content must present accessible jargon.  One useful way to strike this balance is to reduce the use of abstract nouns. Abstract nouns are those nouns do not refer to concrete objects—objects that have a real, tangible existence: They can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, heard.  “Table,” “horse,” “building” are concrete nouns; “joy,” “death,” “hegemony,” etc. are abstract terms.

There is nothing wrong with abstract nouns—in fact, I love them.  Yet they represent a particular challenge for writers. Because they can have many different meanings to different people (what, for instance, springs into your mind when you think of joy?), they need to be described with concrete details. My own predilection for the abstract requires a particular regime of revision: Use short sentences. Explain each step or idea in one sentence.

Abstract writing occurs in every profession discipline. The key thing to remember is to make every word count. Eliminate any word which does not add information, and ensure that every word conveys real information.

How to Reduce Overly Abstract Language

Telling vs. Showing

1. He was tall.

2. He towered over us at 7', 1."

Numbers always help--instead of simple references to size.  Measurements help.  Also, avoid overused linking verbs - especially forms of "to be."  Revise for the first-person, or first-person plural. In short, introduce more detailed imagery that paints a particular picture in the reader's mind.  A further revision might include revising "he" to provide a specific name.  

Let’s assume that the following is declaimed by a politician. How would you react? To what specifically could you react? Compare with the sentence below.

Original: The issue in relation to the interest rates is that it will negatively impact consumers.

What is the issue? How is that related to interest rates? What does a negative impact actually mean? How can a reader possibly understand what the writer has meant in this sentence?

Revised: An increase in interest rates of 0.5% could raise the average mortgage repayment by $10,000 a year.

Content in highly specialized, niche markets often requires the use of abstract terms (vague, undefined words) rather than concrete (precise) terms. Of course, every industry and profession requires specialized terminology which may include abstract nouns (marketing terms such as “differentiation” or "attribution” for instance). There is nothing wrong with abstract nouns, or ideas, as long as they are supplemented with concrete instances so that the reader can understand how the writer understands the abstract term. Abstract terms leave the reader to guess what the writer means. Hence, making hard work for the reader, and these terms are unconvincing as argument because they seem ungrounded to experience. 

Abstract Terminology: Prosthetics have advanced beyond mere substitution to the ability to restore function.

Concrete Sentence: Prosthetics have advanced beyond wooden legs and glass eyes to new devices, such as cochlea implants for the ears, which restore the patient’s use of the missing or defective body part.  

Pay special attention to verbs such as “impact” and “affect”—there is often a more specific verb choice.

  1. The tsunami impacted the charity’s profits.

How were the profits affected? Increased or decreased? Was the disaster a reason for a drain on the reserves? Or did the inpouring of donations actually increase the profits? The reader cannot know. 

  1. The customer accessed his bank account.

Did she withdraw money? Did she check her balance? Did she deposit the money?

Editing Marketing Content

Abstract Terminology Leaves Unanswered Questions

Numerous organizations and settings represent themselves in various ways both to themselves and to others. Therefore, within our comprehension of current society, we should include the commodity and products of self-portrayal. This includes the creation and consumption of organizational records and other related documentation; there are numerous research settings and a plethora of research questions that cannot be adequately investigated without reference to these records and documents. As suggested by studies in marketing theory, textually transmitted applications are a necessary way in which organizations construct public perceptions and other appropriate forms of knowledge.

What does the reader really learn from the above? There are various grammatical and word-choice problems with the paragraph, but the first point to re-edit is the lack of concrete information to support the main assertion in the paragraph that companies use brochures and publicity to define themselves.

Concrete change:

Organizations represent themselves in various ways to both themselves and to others. This self-portrayal can include promotional documentation and paintings or photographs. For instance, Acme’s self-published, History of Acme, has as a front-piece a photo of the original 1950 building as a skyscraper towering over small bungalows. The Acme sign, with the logo, “the biggest and the best”, fills the top three stories. The physical and mercantile dominance of the company is conveyed by its dominance over the smaller buildings, and by the prominence of this photo on the cover of the book.

Abstraction and Writer’s Block

Turning abstract terms into concrete terms is an essential step in critical thinking and clarifies what the writer really knows and wants to say. Writing may stall because the writer has nothing concrete on which to work—no “stuff” to discuss in particular terms.  So, if a writer is having a mental block, I recommend re-editing for concrete expression. More concrete terms will often give rise to further thought.

Editing Technical Content

Editing a Paragraph: The following example does not refer to a real white paper, but it does demonstrate problems of abstraction that commonly occur in content that deals with more technical and scientific information.

Abstract Version: Soil quality is a concerning issue.  Government authorities have responded by developing policies, plans, programs and guidelines. In this paper we critique current federal, state and local government quality policies, plans, programs and guidelines to consider the role stakeholders may play in them.

Problems with the Abstraction in the Passage:

What do you, as reader, understand from this? Look at how many unanswered questions there are:  What is the problem with the soil? Why is this a problem? Authorities have responded? But how? What was the result? Why does the paper critique authorities and policies? What is the problem with these policies?  Do not hide information and assume you have summarized it. Every word in every sentence must convey tangible information to the reader.

Edited Version: Soil quality has deteriorated across the U.S. in the last 15 years and has directly and indirectly led to both the diminution of harvests and increased pollution of waterways. Since soil formation is an extraordinarily slow process, erosion poses a serious problem; soil erosion can quickly cause fertile farmland to become unsuitable for agriculture. In extreme cases, erosion can lead to desertification, a process which causes arid soil to become barren and incapable of sustaining plant growth for many years.

The National_____ (some authoritative institution) notes that erosion is the single greatest threat to soil productivity.  According to a 2017 study published in_____ (some authoritative research publication), the loss of soil and water from US cropland decreases productivity by about $40 billion per year

Confronted by reduced harvests, farmers increase fertilizers and the subsequent run off affects water quality and fish harvest. Poor soil quality thus affects farmers, the agricultural industry, fishermen and the sports fishing industry. All levels of the U.S. Government have introduced policies and guidelines to redress the declining soil quality, but few of these documents have incorporated the views or experiences of those directly affected. As many studies have shown, the failure to involve stakeholders in policy decisions invariably results in poor implementations of those management decisions.

Note on the Revisions: Opening two sentence actually tells reader what the problem with the soil quality is and who it affects (therefore who the stakeholders are) and shows the one problem affects all different sorts of people. At the end of this paragraph, the reader should have an understanding of what the problem is, where the gaps are, that the study is positioned within the wider literature, but also can anticipate what then will come in the next paragraph- the critique of these unilateral policies.

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Topics: Content Writing, B2B Brand Writing, B2B Content Writing

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