What is the Ladder of Abstraction Part 2 by Sandi Somers

In Part 1 of “What Is the Ladder of Abstraction?”, I covered the basic concepts.

Our speaking and writing can be compared to different rungs on a ladder. As your words climb up ladder, you increase the abstract language—concepts, ideas, and meaning. As you climb down to the bottom rungs, your language becomes more concrete—as in using examples, stories, the five senses, and metaphors.

In Part 2, I continue the discussion.

In addition to the abstract and concrete levels, there are middle rungs.

In these middle rungs, the language is less concrete than at the bottom, but not as abstract as at the top.

Take these examples:

My new winter coat ClothingFashion
Tolstoy’s War and Peace Historical FictionLiterature
InScribe’s professional blog BlogsSocial media
The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15)ParableForgiveness and repentance

How do you know if your writing or speaking is too abstract or too concrete?

If someone were to tell you, “Tell me more” or “I don’t know what you mean,” you need to step down the ladder to add something concrete. As Christians, our themes often include love, forgiveness, hope, or faith. These are high abstractions. Yet when we tell a story or give an example, we make these abstract concepts clearer.

On the other hand, if someone asks you, “What does this mean to you?” or “So, what are you saying?” or “Why?”, it means you need to reach the higher rungs to the concept, meaning, or implication. For example, sometimes when I write to the end of a story and don’t know how to finish or what my conclusion should be, I’ve been known to make a note to myself: “And?” or “And so?” I haven’t yet discovered a deeper meaning or significance of the story—a principle, a guideline, or a summary.

What does writing/speaking at only one level look like?

All story and no reflection is shallow writing. We’ve all read an interesting anecdote and they leave out why it’s significant. Or we’ve heard someone tell a joke and leave out the punchline. The stories we write need reflection to give them meaning.

In contrast, all reflection or concepts with no story is dense and theoretical—and hard to understand. Think a theological treatise. Or a business meeting in which the CEO gives broad general ideas. The concepts we’re trying to get across needs to stand on the bottom rungs, firmly planted on the concrete.   

What are ways to incorporate the different rungs into your writing?

Your paragraphs or sections can move from higher to lower and vice versa. For example, while writing this article, I was revising my “Journalling” post for InScribe’s other blog, the ladder of abstractions had practical applications.

In my initial outline, I had given reasons why journals are important (abstract), then gave strategies (concrete). While studying abstractions, I discovered that I could combine two rungs of the ladder into each paragraph, telling the story or giving the example, and then concluding the paragraph by giving the reasons or principle.

To do:

  • In writing a fiction or nonfiction piece, you often change time and/or locale. Always alert your reader. Immediately give the new time—“Six months later…”, “The next day…”, and then specify the locale.
  • Flashbacks need to be clearly delineated. “Three weeks before…”, “And then I remembered…”  Without this transition, your reader can get lost. Regarding the characters and sequence of your story. 
  • When making several points, such as in a sermon, report, or opinion piece, signal to your audience your next point—“second,” “next,” etc. Your reader can follow your thinking and the movement of your topic.

Further to do’s:

  • Think of the different genres you write in. In which genres do you write more concretely or abstractly?  Are there ways you can incorporate the different rungs of the ladder?
  • Which way do you often begin an article: with the abstract, or do you dive right into a story?
  • In the next book you read, or the next sermon you hear, or the next song you listen to, pay attention to the levels of abstraction. How are these examples effective? In what way can they be improved? 

You probably unconsciously follow the concept of the ladder of abstraction, checking for clarity, combining story and principle, etc. But drawing attention to the principle of the ladder brings it forward into your consciousness and will help you become a better writer and/or speaker.

For further reading, here are excellent resources:


Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006, pages 107-111)

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