Creating a Picture in Your Reader’s Mind = More Memorable Content

Paint and paint brushesWhen I rewrite my drafts, sometimes I get impatient. I cross out filler words and clichés and still, the content is blah. The words I use are so boring that I’m easily distracted by our family cat, Coco, or the contractors pounding on the roof shingles of my neighbor’s house across the street. (Do they need to pound at 8 o’clock in the morning?)

As writers, what can we do to engage our readers, even if the readers are ourselves? Here’s one easy trick to make your content and my content more memorable. You already know this powerful editing tip, but do you use it regularly?

Let’s say you’ve written the first imperfect draft. Okay, you’ve written several rounds of imperfect drafts. You’re a writer, so it happens. Just follow me here. Go back into your copy and add the “spicer-upper of content” — concrete phrases.

What are concrete phrases?

“What makes a phrase concrete? If you can examine something with your senses, it’s concrete,” says Chip Heath and Dan Heath in their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

A juicy ripe clementine. Sour purple grapes. Kahula® hot chocolate in a porcelain white mug. (Guess my last meal was hours ago.) Find words in your copy that you can change to describe an experience through the five senses: what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch.

“Use concrete nouns that hurt if they’re dropped on your foot,” Ann Handley

Writing concrete phrases is one of the master tips Ahava Leibtag, founder of Aha Media Group, recommends to strengthen every writer’s content. When you read concrete phrases, the message becomes more understandable.

“What does your mind do? It starts to create pictures for you in your head of what these things are …” she says.

Why do concrete phrases matter?

Concrete phrases transform words that are boring, tedious and “yawn-inducing” into ideas that are easier to remember.

In “Made to Stick,” authors Chip and Dan Heath say, “Experiments in human memory have shown that people are better at remembering concrete, easily visualized nouns (‘bicycle’ or ‘avocado’) than abstract ones (‘justice’ or ‘personality’).”

One such study at the University of Western Ontario demonstrates participants remembered nearly four times as many concrete phrases than abstract phrases.

Researchers read study participants a series of concrete and abstract adjectives and nouns, then combined them into concrete and abstract phrases:

Concrete phrases

Abstract phrases

  • Square door
  • Rusty engine
  • Flaming forest
  • Muscular gentleman
  • White horse
  • Crippled judge
  • Young mother
  • Hungry prisoner
  • Round temple
  • Muddy village
  • Impossible amount
  • Better excuse
  • Apparent fact
  • Common fate
  • Subtle fault
  • Available knowledge
  • Rational method
  • Particular soul
  • Basic theory
  • Absolute truth, Ann Wylie

People remembered almost twice as many concrete words than abstract words.

People remember concrete phrases better chart, Ann Wylie

“To be concrete, use sensory language,” Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Easiest way to improve your writing

Adding concrete phrases does not require the mental exertion like other writing techniques, such as boiling down to the core message or creating an unexpected twist in plot.

Your audience will be a little more engaged.

For example, read these two boring sentences. Yes, even writing them put me to sleep:

I walked outside in the neighborhood today. I thought a bad idea and how it could be better.

Compare to prose stuffed with concrete phrases:

Wearing a fuzzy red hat, plaid scarf and black leather gloves, the old woman stepped outside her gray door and trudged through the slush in heavy snow boots on a cold, windy Tuesday. She thought about yesterday’s argument with Karen and how the conversation turned into a disagreement when she said, “But you always blame Fred for your lack of friends.”

Let’s not put our readers to sleep — unless that was our intention!

“Paint a mental picture,” Chip Heath and Dan Heath

When you’re editing your copy and doubting whether the words will resonate with your audience, go back and replace words with concrete phrases. Keep working and you’ll develop painting skills — an artist who creates word pictures, not with a brush, but with the pen.

What do you say?