Sometimes, I feel desperately fed up with the online world.
I feel bored out of my mind.
How often do you read on auto-pilot without absorbing any knowledge?
How often do you skim texts, looking for interesting tidbits? And how often do you feel disappointed?
I sometimes wonder whether we, as business writers, are doomed to bore each other to tears.
At school, we’ve learned how to write. We learned about grammar and punctuation. But did we learn how to write well? Did we learn how to engage our readers? And how to be persuasive?
If we want our messages to stick, we have to educate and entertain our readers. If we want to share our big ideas without boring our readers to tears, we have to mix abstract advice with concrete imagery.
You haven’t learned that at school, have you? Me neither.
Shall I explain?
The ladder of abstraction
At school, you might have learned that words are either abstract or concrete.
A pear, a grape, a juicy pineapple—these are all concrete words because we can hold a pear in our hand, taste a grape, and smell a ripe pineapple; they’re tangible.
In contrast, success, failure, and a mathematical equation are abstract concepts because we can’t touch failure, we can’t taste an equation, and we can’t smell success. These phrases don’t conjure up concrete images in our mind—unless we get more detailed information like: Henrietta tripped over her shoelaces, lost the contest, and cried like a baby; she felt like a failure.
The distinction between abstract vs concrete may seem clear at first.
But is it?
Think about fruit. What image pops into your mind?
You might think of the apples, pears and kiwis in your fruit bowl, or you might think of one juicy mango, or you might think of the fruit display at your supermarket or local greengrocer.
When a word conjures up different images—a fruit bowl vs one juicy mango, then a word isn’t terribly concrete.
Even a word like apple is still a tiny bit abstract, as you might conjure up a different image from me. You might think of the bruised apples your mother used for cooking your favorite apple sauce. Or perhaps you think of the zesty Granny Smith you had yesterday afternoon. I’m thinking of the Braeburn apple I had for breakfast with cinnamon, blueberries, almonds, and yogurt.
So, abstract and concrete aren’t discrete categories. They’re a gliding scale.
In his excellent book “A Writer’s Coach,” Jack Hart calls this the ladder of abstraction. You can plot our example of fruit on the ladder of abstraction like this:
You can create a similar ladder for other topics, for instance:
The further you descend down the ladder, the easier it becomes to visualize your words, to imagine a specific scene.
Many writers stay stuck at the top half of the ladder. They mix abstract language with somewhat concrete language, but they don’t become specific enough.
But only when readers can picture a specific scene, your writing becomes engaging and colorful.
Examples: How to mix abstract and concrete language
Good journalists educate readers by mixing specific stories with abstract data and trends.
An article about knife crime by Gary Younge, for instance, starts with a specific story of a specific student:
Quamari Barnes, a 15-year-old student, had been stabbed several times. He fell just yards from the school gate. A woman cradled him in her arms as paramedics rushed to the scene before whisking Quamari away to hospital.
By most accounts, Quamari danced to the beat of his own drum. As a precocious child, he held court in conversations with adults from an early age; by his teens, he could cook a full Sunday roast on his own. When he was younger, he had no problem being the only boy in his dance class; as a teenager, while his friends were into grime and rap, he went old-school – Bob Marley, Dennis Brown and Aswad.
Later on, the story gets connected to data and trends:
A Metropolitan police report released last month indicated that between 2014 and 2016 the number of children carrying knives in London schools rose by almost 50%, while the number of knife offences in London schools rose by 26%.
Together, the stories and data engage and educate. The data are cold facts outlining the big picture. The specific stories about specific people add emotion—they provide color to the hard data. They make the facts meaningful.
Good educational content jumps from concrete to abstract and back all the time. Below follows an example of a concrete paragraph from a blog post about the most important question in your life by Mark Manson:
Everybody wants to have an amazing job and financial independence — but not everyone wants to suffer through 60-hour work weeks, long commutes, obnoxious paperwork, to navigate arbitrary corporate hierarchies and the blasé confines of an infinite cubicle hell. People want to be rich without the risk, without the sacrifice, without the delayed gratification necessary to accumulate wealth.
And here’s the abstract lesson—the rule:
[W]hat we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings we desire but by what bad feelings we’re willing and able to sustain to get us to those good feelings.
And he adds a specific story about himself:
For most of my adolescence and young adulthood, I fantasized about being a musician — a rock star, in particular. Any badass guitar song I heard, I would always close my eyes and envision myself up on stage playing it to the screams of the crowd, people absolutely losing their minds to my sweet finger-noodling. This fantasy could keep me occupied for hours on end. (…)
Despite fantasizing about this for over half of my life, the reality never came. And it took me a long time and a lot of negative experiences to finally figure out why: I didn’t actually want it. (…)
The daily drudgery of practicing, the logistics of finding a group and rehearsing, the pain of finding gigs and actually getting people to show up and give a shit. The broken strings, the blown tube amp, hauling 40 pounds of gear to and from rehearsals with no car. It’s a mountain of a dream and a mile-high climb to the top. And what it took me a long time to discover is that I didn’t like to climb much. I just liked to imagine the top.
And to jump to the last sentence of his post, Manson summarizes his message in abstract language again:
This is the most simple and basic component of life: our struggles determine our successes. So choose your struggles wisely, my friend.
To get readers to listen to our advice, we need to explain the abstract rules, and share concrete stories to add meaning. We sketch the big picture, and use examples to add color.
Good writing dances up and down the ladder of abstraction
A good journalist may narrate the story of one refugee family, before explaining the trends in people’s movements across the earth.
A business coach illustrates online business models with real life stories. An architect shows photos or drawings of buildings to illustrate architectural trends.
Trends, data, rules, models, lessons, and advice are all abstract pieces of information. They tell us the big picture.
But the big picture only comes alive with specific examples and stories.