Reading sometimes feels magical to me.
A good text transports me to a different world.
A thriller makes me live through the protagonist’s fears and triumphs.
A good memoir lets me feel the author’s feelings, experience their struggles, and understand how they make their life choices. I feel enriched and connected.
Even a good sales pitch makes me imagine how a product would make my life better, making me more eager to click Buy.
Unfortunately, a lot of non-fiction writing lacks such imagination.
Because non-fiction writing often remains too abstract, and abstract writing does not open readers’ minds to a new experience.
Only concrete language has this magic touch.
Want to know how to add this magic touch to your writing?
Invite readers into a different world
In his book An Immense World, Ed Yong describes the sensory experiences of animals.
I had no idea how much such sensory experiences differ. For instance, I used to think that mosquitoes hate the smell of DEET as much as I do. Isn’t that why they stay away from me when I lather my arms with anti-mosquito cream?
Mosquitoes taste with their feet. When they land on DEET-covered skin, they quickly withdraw because it tastes bitter.
It makes me wonder …
If I’d taste with my feet, would it be even better to walk barefoot on the grass?
Yong’s book doesn’t just provide fascinating lessons in sensory biology, it also shows us how to use concrete language to get readers out of their bubbles and invite them into a different world.
Here’s how …
Example 1: Make an abstract statement concrete
Humans have much sharper vision than most animals. Only birds of prey see more detail than humans.
But what does this mean in practice?
On a bright day, people with excellent eyesight can distinguish the black-and-white bands [of a zebra] from 200 yards away. Lions can only do so at 90 yards and hyenas at 50 yards. And those distances roughly halve at dawn and dusk, when these predators are more likely to hunt.
Having sharper vision is an abstract statement. Distinguishing the black-and-white stripes from 200 yards rather than 50 is a concrete example, making it easier to imagine what vision is like for a hyena, and how their life is different.
So, to make an abstract statement concrete, ask yourself: What does this mean in practice? Then give at least one specific example.
Example 2: Tell a concrete story
The non-fiction books I enjoy most have two things in common.
First, they teach well and make me curious to learn more. Secondly, they harness the power of storytelling. Miniature stories are woven into the text, gripping me as if I’m reading fiction.
Yong’s book is full of miniature stories. Here’s how he illustrates the abstract idea that color perception differs between humans and animals:
It’s a sunny afternoon in March 2021, and I’m taking Typo, my corgi, for a walk. As we approach a neighbor who is rinsing his car with a hose, Typo stops, sits, and stares. As I wait with him, I notice a rainbow in the water arcing from the hose. To Typo’s eyes, it goes from yellow to white to blue. To mine, it goes from red to violet, with orange, yellow, green, and blue in the middle. To the sparrows and starlings perched in a tree behind us, it goes from red to ultraviolet, with perhaps even more gradations in between.
Did you imagine yourself walking with Ed and his dog Typo, too? Did you picture the different colored rainbows? This is how stories invite us into a different world.
Stories are always specific. They relate how a specific person (or animal) is acting in a specific situation. Yong used the story of walking his dog to explain how he and his dog perceive colors differently.
To use a miniature story to illustrate an abstract statement, ask yourself: How does this work in practice? What’s the situation in which this applies? Who’s in that situation and what are they doing?
Example 3: Ask readers to imagine
The two examples above showed us differences between humans and animals.
But what if you want to show how an animal experiences the world without going into differences?
You can use the same technique. For instance, otters have sensitive paws, and they experience the world under water through touch.
What does that mean in practice?
Here’s how Yong let’s us imagine what it’s like to be a sea otter:
Imagine that, right now, a sea otter is about to search for food. Floating on its back on the surface of the sea, it rolls and dives. It will only stay submerged for a minute—roughly the time it will take you to read this paragraph. The descent eats up many of the precious seconds, so once the otter reaches the right depth, it has no time for indecisiveness. In a few frantic moments, it presses its knobby mittens over the seafloor, inspecting whatever it can find. The water is dark, but darkness doesn’t matter. To some of the most sensitive paws in the world, the ocean is bright with shapes and textures to be felt, grasped, pressed, prodded, squeezed, stroked, and manhandled—or perhaps otterhandled. Hard-shelled prey nestle among the similar hard rocks, but in a split second, the otter feels the difference between the two, and pulls the former from the latter. With its sense of touch, its dexterous paws, and its overabundant mustelid confidence, it snatches that clam, yanks that abalone, grabs that sea urchin, and finally ascends to eat its catches, breaking the water at the end of this sentence.
Could you almost feel the movements of the otter’s paws? That’s because Yong uses strong verbs such as grasp, press, prod, squeeze, stroke, snatch, yank, and manhandle.
To describe what life is like for another animal or another human being, think about the details that matter most. How can you invite readers into their world?
We all live in our bubbles
Our sensory experience of the world feels all-encompassing.
It’s as if our experience is all there is.
Yet, we experience only a tiny fraction of the world around us, and we project our own experience onto others.
We shiver as we watch penguins braving the Antarctic chills on TV. We feel uncomfortable watching camels trudging through the hot desert. But what if penguins don’t feel the cold like we do? What if the heat doesn’t bother the camels?
As humans, it’s hard to imagine what life is like for a penguin or camel. We even find it hard to imagine the life of our fellow humans, and how different life experiences lead to different world views.
Isn’t that a great opportunity for us, writers?
We can let our readers experience different worlds, foster understanding, and help connect.
Book mentioned in this post:
- An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong (highly recommended)