The Writer's Canvas - Painting Word Pictures with Nouns

If you want to keep readers turning the pages, engage their five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste.  Learn about concrete and abstract nouns for your writing practice, and watch your writing come alive!

The word “noun” comes from the Latin  “nomen”, which means “name”.  The more clearly we name objects, the better our readers can “see” them in their mind’s eye.


Let’s review the basic definitions we learned in school:  Concrete nouns are those that name people, places, and things.  They refer to things that can be seen, heard, smelled, touched or tasted.  Abstract nouns are those that name ideas, feelings, and concepts – things you can’t see or touch, intangibles.  

Using only abstract nouns keeps us at arm’s length from our stories and characters.  When we introduce concrete nouns, we move into the story and experience it personally.

Now let’s look at some examples of abstract vs. concrete nouns.

Comfort – Abstract noun – This is a wonderful word, but we can’t smell it, taste it, see it, feel it or hear it!  The following story fragment doesn’t do much to engage the reader:

Henry appreciated the comfort provided after his accident.

Let’s find some concrete comfort nouns and see if we can make this scene come alive.

Henry had come so close to drowning. He barely had enough energy to smile as his best friend Melissa wrapped him in a warm quilt, settled him into the spacious armchair, and helped him sip a steaming cup of herbal tea.  He reached out his hand and silently squeezed his thanks.

With this new fragment, the reader can actually begin to see what Harry sees, feel his weak state, taste the scalding tea, experience the warmth of the quilt. This is a scene that engages the senses, invites the reader to participate. The words that are underlined suggested comfort to this particular writer.

Sometimes abstract nouns can be confusingly vague.  “Comfort” means many things to many people. Another way of telling the story of Henry might be totally different.

Henry didn’t know which was more soothing – the fresh linen fragrance of the hospital sheets, the early morning sunlight pouring in the east window, or Nurse Linda’s County Cork accent, reminding him of home. He had survived the midnight crash, and lived to see the first day of spring.

This writer has painted quite a different picture with her choice of words. We, the readers, can smell the sheets, see the sunlight, hear Nurse Linda’s voice.  We are there, with Henry, as he celebrates his survival.

In addition to being concrete or abstract, nouns can also be general or specific.  Here are some examples:

Building – a general, concrete noun

More specific “building” nouns


Even more specific “building” nouns

Taj Mahal
10 Downing Street
Empire State Building

Animal – a general, concrete noun

More specific “animal” nouns


Even more specific “animal” nouns

King Kong

Relaxation – an abstract noun, doesn’t engage the senses

Concrete “relaxation” nouns

Palm trees

As you learn to paint pictures with nouns, watch your writing get stronger and more appealing.

Happy writing!

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