Vintage car tail lights
Jun 03, 2009
Amanda O'Donovan

Driven to Abstraction?

If you think that communication is all about words not images, you may find that you’re writing in abstract terms. People remember pictures, not concepts. So, when your talk turns abstract, your readers start to drift – they’re simply not engaged. If there’s nothing concrete in what you’re saying, there’s nothing for them to identify with. Much like passive voice, abstract writing can sound pompous, evasive, vague or muddled. Peppered with confusing strings of abstract nouns, sentences can quickly run out of control, and you’ll find yourself using valuable page space to say nothing at all.

So how do you recognize these abstractions, and what can you do to weed them out of your copy? Let’s look at some concrete examples!

A Family Entertainment Experience – A wasted phrase like this is likely to have as many meanings as it has readers. Are we talking about watching Grandpa do karaoke or Mom fall out of a canoe? Is this about taking a trip to Disney or experiencing the excitement of Cirque du Soleil for the very first time? Or maybe we’re simply talking about getting in the minivan and munching through a bucket of popcorn while watching a feel-good movie that’s suitable for all ages.

And here’s another one: Nintendo describes the Wii as “a unique social gaming experience.” If you’d just emerged from a coma, would you know that the Wii is a video game that gets people off the couch and brings them together in front of their TV screens to bowl and box or play golf, tennis and baseball?

Negative Equity – This means that you’ve borrowed money to buy something that’s now worth less than you paid for it. But, while I think you’re talking about a house with a mortgage, someone else is imagining a car or a boat. If you don’t paint the picture your readers will make up their own story.

Our Leading-Edge Facilities – Are we talking washroom, sports arena or hotel? And what makes these facilities so “leading-edge”? For argument’s sake, let’s say you run a hotel and you’re trying to increase room occupancy. You won’t attract any visitors by talking about facilities. You have to give your readers every reason to want to make a booking, so they have to picture themselves as guests in your hotel. Tell them about your new ergonomic beds and luxurious linens. Let them know about the celebrity chef in your restaurant. Give them every reason to want to reserve a decadent spa treatment or challenge themselves to a workout in your fully equipped gym.

If you’re writing for technology markets it’s quite likely that you’re even more abstract than most. We’re in the habit of talking about platforms, systems, solutions, applications, configurations, standalones, bleeding edges, user interfaces, seamless transitions, vertical markets, intellectual property and cloud technology. We dehumanize real people, who we’re hoping will buy our products and services, by calling them end users and customer bases. Isn’t it about time we all started talking to our clients in a much more meaningful way?


Amanda O’Donovan works as a freelance copywriter in Toronto, Canada. You can contact her at 416.456.3859 or