What is Abstract Language?
Why does abstract language matter, abstract language, clarity & readability, how can i avoid unnecessasry abstractions.
“Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.”
Strategies for Working with Abstract Prose
Recommended resources, suggest an edit to this page.
Abstraction, don’t be an oxymoron. know your literary terms..
Over 200 literary terms, Shmooped to perfection.
An abstraction is something that you can't directly experience using your five senses. Love. War. Culture. If you know it exists, but you can't see it, smell it, taste it, touch it, or hear it, that's an abstraction. (And, really—who wants to smell culture, anyway?)
So how do you help readers understand abstractions? By backing them up with concrete language. Take "relaxation," for example. You might explain that abstraction further by describing the feel of the sun on your skin, the taste of a piña colada on your tongue, the smell of the ocean nearby, and the smooth sounds of Michael Bolton on your iPod.
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W hy's T his F unny?
There are many ways to label or classify language as we learn to better control itby levels, such as formal, informal, colloquial or slang; by tones, such as stiff, pompous, conversational, friendly, direct, impersonal; even by functions, such as noun, verb, adjective. I want to introduce you to a powerful way of classifying languageby levels of abstraction or concreteness or generality or specificity (any one of those four terms really implies the others).
Approaching language in these terms is valuable because it helps us recognize what kinds of language are more likely to be understood and what kinds are more likely to be misunderstood. The more abstract or general your language is, the more unclear and boring it will be. The more concrete and specific your language is, the more clear and vivid it will be.
Let's look at these different types of language. Abstract and Concrete Terms Abstract terms refer to ideas or concepts; they have no physical referents.
[Stop right here and reread that definition. Many readers will find it both vague and boring. Even if you find it interesting, it may be hard to pin down the meaning. To make the meaning of this abstract language clearer, we need some examples.]
Examples of abstract terms include love, success, freedom, good, moral, democracy , and any -ism (chauvinism, Communism, feminism, racism, sexism ). These terms are fairly common and familiar, and because we recognize them we may imagine that we understand thembut we really can't, because the meanings won't stay still.
Take love as an example. You've heard and used that word since you were three or four years old. Does it mean to you now what it meant to you when you were five? when you were ten? when you were fourteen (!)? I'm sure you'll share my certainty that the word changes meaning when we marry, when we divorce, when we have children, when we look back at lost parents or spouses or children. The word stays the same, but the meaning keeps changing.
If I say, "love is good," you'll probably assume that you understand, and be inclined to agree with me. You may change your mind, though, if you realize I mean that "prostitution should be legalized" [heck, love is good!].
How about freedom ? The word is familiar enough, but when I say, "I want freedom," what am I talking about? divorce? self-employment? summer vacation? paid-off debts? my own car? looser pants? The meaning of freedom won't stay still. Look back at the other examples I gave you, and you'll see the same sorts of problems.
Does this mean we shouldn't use abstract terms? Nowe need abstract terms. We need to talk about ideas and concepts, and we need terms that represent them. But we must understand how imprecise their meanings are, how easily they can be differently understood, and how tiring and boring long chains of abstract terms can be. Abstract terms are useful and necessary when we want to name ideas (as we do in thesis statements and some paragraph topic sentences), but they're not likely to make points clear or interesting by themselves.
While abstract terms like love change meaning with time and circumstances, concrete terms like spoon stay pretty much the same. Spoon and hot and puppy mean pretty much the same to you now as they did when you were four.
You may think you understand and agree with me when I say, "We all want success." But surely we don't all want the same things. Success means different things to each of us, and you can't be sure of what I mean by that abstract term. On the other hand, if I say "I want a gold Rolex on my wrist and a Mercedes in my driveway," you know exactly what I mean (and you know whether you want the same things or different things). Can you see that concrete terms are clearer and more interesting than abstract terms?
If you were a politician, you might prefer abstract terms to concrete terms. "We'll direct all our considerable resources to satisfying the needs of our constituents" sounds much better than "I'll spend $10 million of your taxes on a new highway that will help my biggest campaign contributor." But your goal as a writer is not to hide your real meanings, but to make them clear, so you'll work to use fewer abstract terms and more concrete terms.
Furniture is a general term; it includes within it many different items. If I ask you to form an image of furniture, it won't be easy to do. Do you see a department store display room? a dining room? an office? Even if you can produce a distinct image in your mind, how likely is it that another reader will form a very similar image? Furniture is a concrete term (it refers to something we can see and feel), but its meaning is still hard to pin down, because the group is so large. Do you have positive or negative feelings toward furniture ? Again, it's hard to develop much of a response, because the group represented by this general term is just too large.
We can make the group smaller with the less general term, chair . This is still pretty general (that is, it still refers to a group rather than an individual), but it's easier to picture a chair than it is to picture furniture .
Shift next to rocking chair. Now the image is getting clearer, and it's easier to form an attitude toward the thing. The images we form are likely to be fairly similar, and we're all likely to have some similar associations (comfort, relaxation, calm), so this less general or more specific term communicates more clearly than the more general or less specific terms before it.
We can become more and more specific. It can be a La-Z-Boy rocker-recliner . It can be a green velvet La-Z-Boy rocker recliner . It can be a lime green velvet La-Z-Boy rocker recliner with a cigarette burn on the left arm and a crushed jelly doughnut pressed into the back edge of the seat cushion. By the time we get to the last description, we have surely reached the individual, a single chair. Note how easy it is to visualize this chair, and how much attitude we can form about it.
The more you rely on general terms, the more your writing is likely to be vague and dull. As your language becomes more specific, though, your meanings become clearer and your writing becomes more interesting.
Does this mean you have to cram your writing with loads of detailed description? No. First, you don't always need modifiers to identify an individual: Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa are specifics; so are Bob's Camaro and the wart on Zelda's chin . Second, not everything needs to be individual: sometimes we need to know that Fred sat in a chair, but we don't care what the chair looked like.
We experience the world first and most vividly through our senses. From the beginning, we sense hot, cold, soft, rough, loud. Our early words are all concrete: nose, hand, ear, cup, Mommy. We teach concrete terms: "Where's baby's mouth?" "Where's baby's foot?"not, "Where's baby's democracy?" Why is it that we turn to abstractions and generalizations when we write?
I think part of it is that we're trying to offer ideas or conclusions. We've worked hard for them, we're proud of them, they're what we want to share. After Mary tells you that you're her best friend, you hear her tell Margaret that she really hates you. Mrs. Warner promises to pay you extra for raking her lawn after cutting it, but when you're finished she says it should be part of the original price, and she won't give you the promised money. Your dad promises to pick you up at four o'clock, but leaves you standing like a fool on the corner until after six. Your boss promises you a promotion, then gives it instead to his boss's nephew. From these and more specific experiences, you learn that you can't always trust everybody. Do you tell your child those stories? More probably you just tell your child, "You can't always trust everybody."
It took a lot of concrete, specific experiences to teach you that lesson, but you try to pass it on with a few general words. You may think you're doing it right, giving your child the lesson without the hurt you went through. But the hurts teach the lesson, not the general terms. "You can't always trust everybody" may be a fine main idea for an essay or paragraph, and it may be all that you want your child or your reader to graspbut if you want to make that lesson clear, you'll have to give your child or your reader the concrete, specific experiences.
You can check out this principle in the textbooks you read and the lectures you listen to. If you find yourself bored or confused, chances are you're getting generalizations and abstractions. [This is almost inevitablethe purpose of the texts and the teachers is to give you general principles!] You'll find your interest and your understanding increase when the author or teacher starts offering specifics. One of the most useful questions you can ask of an unclear presentation ( including your own ) is, "Can you give me an example?"
Your writing (whether it's in an essay, a letter, a memorandum, a report, an advertisement, or a resume) will be clearer, more interesting, and better remembered if it is dominated by concrete and specific terms, and if it keeps abstract and general terms to a minimum. Go ahead and use abstract and general terms in your thesis statement and your topic sentences. But make the development concrete and specific.
Where do these concrete specifics emerge in the writing process? You should gather many concrete specifics in the prewriting steps of invention and discovery. If you have many concrete specifics at hand before you organize or draft, you're likely to think and write more easily and accurately. It's easier to write well when you're closer to knowing what you're talking about.
You will certainly come up with more concrete specifics as you draft, and more as you revise, and maybe still more as you edit. But you'll be a better writer if you can gather some concrete specifics at the very start.
After you have read and thought about this material, you should have a fairly clear idea of what concrete specifics are and why you want them. Your next step will be to practice.
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Writing advice for small business
How to Share the ‘Big Picture’ (Without Boring Your Readers to Tears)
by Henneke | 85 enchanting opinions, add yours? :)
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.
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.
Recommended reading on concrete language:
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June 30, 2022 at 8:10 pm
You have to want to pay the price for success—that says it all. Can’t begin to tell you how many gems I discovered in this article. Kudos. Thanks a MILLION.
June 30, 2022 at 9:24 pm
I’m glad you found it useful, Donna. Happy writing!
May 19, 2022 at 6:56 pm
You have illustrated this beautiful concept in yet another illustrious article of yours on “Zoom in Zoom out techniques” like no one else. Take a bow Maam. You are my forever writing Hero.
May 21, 2022 at 7:47 pm
Awww. Thank you, Padmaa. I remember feeling really inspired to write this article. It was fun to write!
December 6, 2019 at 2:18 pm
This post definitely sheds some light upon my daily writing.
I’m in charge of social media for a tech-company and more often than not, I try to inject very fancy and complex terms, hoping that it will attract the technical readers. But the more I write, the more I realize that especially on social media when the attention of the audience is extremely short, it’s way better to keep the copy straight forward, short, and provide as much value as possible instead of using bait-click words.
Another thing I learned on the way is that, regardless of your audience, staying authentic and genuine is the key.
December 8, 2019 at 9:51 am
Yes to being authentic and genuine!
Thank you for stopping by, Joy.
December 2, 2019 at 12:44 pm
Writing for Social Media, a writing course I’m currently taking on edX brought me here.
This is absolutely breathtaking.
I subscribed for the “16 concise mails” too?
December 2, 2019 at 6:06 pm
I didn’t even know my website was mentioned in that course. Thank you for letting me know. I hope you’ll enjoy the “snacks!” 🙂
November 25, 2019 at 7:46 pm
Really great article with lots of helpful ideas. I find it hand-wringing-ly frustrating as a business writer when my clients insist that the tone I use is “too conversational” or “too informal”.
Unless you’re the Pope or a president, I find most online and/or marketing writing to be too formal. When people need to pull out a dictionary to get your point, there’s a problem.
Thanks again for the great post. I’m looking forward to checking out more articles here soon.
November 26, 2019 at 12:16 pm
I agree with you—far too much writing is far too formal and it fails to engage. I love your phrase hand-wringing-ly frustrating. It is so true.
November 12, 2019 at 11:23 am
Thanks Henneke for sharing this useful and important rule for writing content that grabs and moves readers to vividly imagine specific scenes supported with context. Being specific and dabbling between concrete and abstract writing is the key to great writing.
November 13, 2019 at 12:07 pm
I’m glad you found it useful, Lucas. Happy writing!
October 13, 2019 at 4:04 pm
Isn’t making paragraphs concrete making them verbose? How do we tackle it?
October 13, 2019 at 4:12 pm
Nope, being verbose means adding needless detail. When you add relevant details, you make your story more vivid. See also here: https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/precise-writing/
August 14, 2019 at 3:22 am
Very helpful examples of the difference between concrete and Abstract thinking. I was born with Autism Spectrum disorder and I have concrete thinking.The world runs one way and that is with abstract words. Your website helped me understand my own thinking.If the teacher starts speaking jargon and uses abstract words I am lost. Thanks for helping me understand why I keep getting confused with what is said not just with teachers but with everyday people. People who know how to speak concrete when I get confused is good.I am not writing a story or anything but trying to understand myself. The visuals with the concrete and abstract words is very helpful.
August 14, 2019 at 10:49 am
I wish the world communicated more in concrete ideas, too, as it’s easier for everyone to understand concrete messages. I’m glad you found the visuals useful. Thank you for your comment, Megan.
October 7, 2022 at 4:00 am
Same issue here. I try to ask people to explain more, and communicate to force them to the concrete way that aligned with my concern thinking style. Unfortunately, it does not work at all. Many times the conversations end via the following sentence: Sorry I could not able to explain it more for you.
October 7, 2022 at 11:09 am
It can sometimes help to ask people for an example. Such as: Can you give an example of how this works?
January 22, 2019 at 9:33 pm
Many thanks for this post! I was so enchanted I just purchased a copy of your “Blog to win business” from Amazon. I’m hoping it will improve my own monthly blog posts. Best regards, Peter
January 22, 2019 at 9:42 pm
Thank you, Peter. I hope you’ll enjoy the book. Let me know?
December 28, 2017 at 11:55 pm
Oh, my goodness, Henneke! Your website is a giant maze of information and I can’t get out, lol. I keep clicking on the next link to see what else is around the corner :). But I am so glad I got stuck here :D. Thank you for sharing!
December 29, 2017 at 7:47 pm
Yes, it’s a maze, isn’t it? Before you know you can spend hours reading here …
Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Lena. Happy writing!
June 4, 2017 at 2:48 pm
I think last two lines is the summary of the post, love the style.
last year i have taken a course from Coursera and learned the strategies of writing an introduction paragraph and I loved those strategies. Among those strategies, two were writing through storytelling and writing with interesting statistics. I think your post will help me to combine those and to write an engaging introduction for my reader.
June 6, 2017 at 11:40 am
Yes, using stats and storytelling are both powerful strategies; and the real magic happens when you combine the two.
Thank you for stopping by to comment, Hasan. I appreciate it.
May 17, 2017 at 7:55 am
Loved this post! The abstract ladder really got me thinking and when I saw the mix of concrete and abstract to deliver interesting content, it was another light bulb moment.
Thanks for the consistently inspiring and enriching posts, Henneke.
May 12, 2017 at 8:38 am
This article resonated deeply with me, especially:
> 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.
That’s something I’ve come to realise lately, the difference between thinking that you want something, and actually wanting it so much so that you’ll put in the hard work to go and achieve it.
May 12, 2017 at 6:46 pm
Did you click through to read Mark Manson’s article? I really his perspective on this, too.
Thank you for stopping by, Matthew.
May 10, 2017 at 7:11 am
Excellent post as usual.
It means while descending by the ladder of abstraction we’ve to cut FAT(gobbledygook) from our content to make it concrete. Examples, story & few sensory words help to explain the abstract rule & create a Big picture. Ultimately it becomes digestible for readers to gobble up. 🙂 I understood this much from post. 😉
Thank you so much.
May 10, 2017 at 1:27 pm
That’s a good point about gobbledygook because gobbledygook is usually somewhere in the middle of the ladder. It’s not super abstract and it’s not really specific. Usually content gets better if we replace gobbledygook by super-concrete details.
Thank you for stopping by again, Mehera. I appreciate it 🙂
May 10, 2017 at 2:44 am
As usual, you don’t disappoint! Your idea on abstract vs concrete is interesting, I’ve actually never thought about the distinction between the two but now that I think about it, I can wholeheartedly agree with you — they are indeed very distinct from one another.
I tend to be stuck in the top half of the ladder for most of my writing but hopefully now that i’ve learnt a bit more about abstract and concrete, I can maybe switch between the top half and bottom half of the ladder more often!
Anyways before I end up writing an entire essay, lemme just end it there! Thank you so much for sharing this with all of us Henneke, i’m super duper excited for more content from you!
May 10, 2017 at 1:26 pm
Most people remain stuck at the top half of the ladder, but the most interesting content combines the very top with the very bottom of the ladder; it mixes the super-concrete with the really abstract.
Happy writing, George! And thank you for your lovely comment. 🙂
May 9, 2017 at 9:52 pm
My posts always do better if I begin with a juicy story. You are so right! Why can’t I remember that when I’m writing!?
May 9, 2017 at 10:02 pm
I bet you have more than enough juicy stories to tell!
May 9, 2017 at 9:37 pm
I absolutely love all your articles, they’re all so fun to read yet so informative at the same time, you’re definitely the type of writer I aspire to be (your graphs aren’t half bad either :P)
Along with the concepts you explained, the article that Gary wrote was also pretty nice. From the way you explained it, I can definitely understand why it was so effective — something that might have taken me a bit longer to realise if it weren’t for you!
May 9, 2017 at 10:00 pm
I agree with you – that article by Gary Younge is well written, and it’s interesting to see how he keeps jumping up and down the Ladder of Abstraction to mix concrete stories with the data and the trends.
Thank you for stopping by.
May 9, 2017 at 8:57 pm
Fascinating! I certainly didn’t learn how to write well at school and had never heard of abstract and concrete words until now. So thank you, Henneke for another great post 🙂 and thank you for the recommendation, will check it out.
May 9, 2017 at 9:59 pm
I’m glad you enjoyed it, Yolanda. Maybe I should be more grateful for bad teachers, so there’s still enough interest in reading my blog posts 😉
I hope you’ll enjoy Jack Hart’s “The Writing Coach”
May 9, 2017 at 8:04 pm
You’re right, I’m sure the teachers didn’t mention that we have to mix abstract advice with concrete imagery. Unless I was asleep…
But getting that mix of facts intertwined with stories is a great way to keep readers engaged with our posts.
I loved your examples and illustrations in this post, just been saving them to Pinterest. – David
PS – will check out the recommended book, A Writer’s Coach
May 9, 2017 at 9:57 pm
I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy that book, David!
And it’s good to know I wasn’t the only one with bad teachers 😉
Thank you for stopping by and for spreading the word.
May 9, 2017 at 7:43 pm
Hi Henneke, Love your drawings. The last one made me smile with delight. ? I still remember how you taught me during the course, to use examples and metaphors. You wouldn’t let me off the hook before the scene became vivid with details. That was a great lesson. And your article reminded me of it. But not only. Thank you for bringing the subject of the abstract and concrete writing to us so clearly and artistically.
May 9, 2017 at 9:54 pm
When my drawings make someone smile, I’m happy 🙂
Thank you for your lovely comment, Irina. Happy writing!
May 9, 2017 at 7:29 pm
Henneke, I love this from your email intro. “To be honest, I’m not sure how many writing teachers really understand it. (Abstract/Concrete continuum) I definitely never learned about it at school. And that irks me.”
🙂 Tis an irritation isn’t it? I got past it, more or less, when I decided the “master” teacher’s limitations left that much more for me to discover on my own. Kinda turned it into a treasure hunt for me.
May 9, 2017 at 9:45 pm
Curtis, that’s so true. The treasure hunt is perhaps more satisfying than being told how to write. Organizing our own treasure hunt and discovering the treasures is fun, right? Perhaps I should be more grateful to my teachers who left me so much to discover 🙂
May 10, 2017 at 4:56 am
With your student’s quest, since of curiosity and imagination you have already done a wonderful job of organizing your treasure hunt and sharing it with the rest of us. I would submit this most recent post as exhibit “A”. The email page you sent was killer. It was impossible for me not to click through to the post. Impossible On with the treasure hunt. The best has yet to be found.
May 10, 2017 at 1:24 pm
The click rate on this email was pretty high, so many people have found it quite impossible to resist clicking. It’s been on my list a while to write a blog post about emails that entice readers to click. You reminded me of this, so thank you for the nudge 🙂
Sometimes it’s hard to keep the faith, but I think you’re right that the most sparkling and most surprising treasures are still to be found 🙂
Thank you, Curtis, I appreciate your encouragement!
May 9, 2017 at 5:49 pm
this is one reason I always look forward to receiving that email from you weekly, it’s always worth the wait. satisfying and sticking. this is yet another undeniably enchanting one. thanks for this one again.
May 9, 2017 at 9:42 pm
Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Cynthia. I’m glad you’re finding my content worth the wait 🙂
May 9, 2017 at 5:47 pm
What a wonderful contemporary illustration of the use of Ladder of Abstraction! I originally discovered it in S.I. Hayakawa’s “Language In Thought And Action” (5th ed. 1990) and use it often in my daily life in general.
Interestingly, Jack Hart also refers to that book – that’s where he first came across the Ladder of Abstraction. I’ve put it on my reading list. I’m looking forward to reading it!
May 9, 2017 at 5:14 pm
Like Ini I too would like to learn more of this concept. I’m not a writer just a budding entrepreneur who savours the art of good writing practise and who strives to do better at such. Your advice is always a worthwhile read Henneke and while ‘yes’ I’m guilty of skimming for tidbits I look forward to your posts my dear. Cheers sweetie….
May 9, 2017 at 7:42 pm
I’d recommend Jack Hart’s book (A Writer’s Coach) – he discusses the ladder of abstraction in chapter 9. You may also find it useful to analyze how other writers use abstract vs concrete language – that’s what I do to keep improving my own writing.
I’m glad you enjoyed this one, Debbie. Thank you for stopping by 🙂
May 9, 2017 at 4:43 pm
Excellent post! When I read your posts I feel like we are sitting together over coffee or tea. Thoroughly enchanting! Thanks!
May 9, 2017 at 7:38 pm
I enjoyed our cuppa together, Lane. 🙂
May 9, 2017 at 4:35 pm
Fantastic post. This reminds me of my great high school English teacher. He would have us write a short essay almost everyday. His prompts would have us identify our topic to write about and then include “textual evidence” to back up our claims. This article reminded me of that.
May 9, 2017 at 7:37 pm
It sounds like you had a much better English teacher than I’ve had!
Thank you for stopping by, Bobby.
May 9, 2017 at 4:08 pm
You’ve been reading Jack Hart! Yay 🙂 Isn’t ‘A Writer’s Coach’ terrific?
I love the way with this ladder of abstraction concept he values both the abstract and the earthy. He wants writers to connect these poles together, to get them working with each other – rather than staying stuck in the boring middle.
I found his book a fab reinforcement to what you teach on your courses. Highly recommended. Both your courses and his book 😉
May 9, 2017 at 7:36 pm
Yes, it’s a terrific book, and I so appreciate your recommendation! It’s probably one of the best (perhaps THE best) all round writing guide I’ve read.
I haven’t read the whole book yet. I like dipping into it and read a chapter here or there. I actually read the chapter about the ladder of abstraction a couple of months ago, but didn’t quite know how I wanted to write it about until we were doing metaphors in the course last week 🙂
I appreciate your recommendation on my courses, too 🙂
May 9, 2017 at 3:57 pm
Hi Henneke, I not only enjoyed your article but didn’t skim read at any point; so I guess you walked the talk. I’d like to ask the purpose of the square parentheses in the Mark Manson content…[W]hat we get out of life… Thanks
May 9, 2017 at 7:33 pm
That’s because in the original text it wasn’t a capital because it wasn’t the start of the sentence. The full sentence was: “Therefore, what 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.” But the “Therefore” was confusing as a stand-alone sentence, so I eliminated it.
Another way to quote would be: “(…) what 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.”
I’m not sure whether different style guides have different preferences. I’ve seen both used.
May 9, 2017 at 3:05 pm
There’s a new concept. Abstraction on a scale. Huh. Interesting!
Yes, surprisingly simple, yet quite impactful 🙂
May 10, 2017 at 4:47 pm
Does the author draw up complicated schemes of wheter you should match a 1/3 concrete with a 2/3 abstract word, for instance? What is exactly his point about subdividing abstract and concrete?
May 10, 2017 at 7:35 pm
Jack Hart doesn’t suggest a specific scheme or formula. I don’t think that exists.
The point of the continuum of abstraction is to help people understand what it really means to use concrete language. Many writers think their writing is concrete, but their writing is only half-way the continuum. If they’re able to make their writing more concrete (or more specific), then their content becomes more engaging as readers can visualize their words.
A second advantage is helping writers understand that abstract sentences aren’t wrong—as long as you mix the abstract statements with concrete examples so the writing feels alive rather than being just dry facts.
May 10, 2017 at 7:56 pm
Ah, OK, gotcha!
May 9, 2017 at 2:39 pm
Excellent Henneke, When I first stepped into the blogosphere, the fact that was bewildering was the number of authors devoted on making you a better blogger. From tech lessons to how-to’s, there seemed to be few blogs with anything I wanted to read. Then I came cross Harleena Singh and Aha.now.com., The Wondereof tech.com and your highly educating and super reading site Your clear thinking and analytical writing could be a master class in any University – this is not flattery. I am a retired professor myself. At the same time there is so much of you in every post that I can almost see you, your bycle and sketching pens,each time I start to read your writing. Abstract my mind picture maybe,but you have laid down more concrete facts than anyone I have read. It’s like hearing facts from a trusted friend whose way with words is magical. Combine that with your cartoons you are someone I know+ in my mind.
I wish my days of teaching were still going. All my students would be using your posts as course material. Thank you again. Nicolas.
May 9, 2017 at 7:28 pm
Yes, I know what you’re saying about the bewildering blogosphere. I’ve felt the same, and still feel like that to some extent. I survive by focusing on getting the essentials right.
Thank you for you lovely compliment on my writing. I love writing and sharing what I learn!
I appreciate your stopping by, Nicolas. Thank you.
My pleasure entirely.
May 9, 2017 at 2:32 pm
As usual, another thoughtful insight this will remain etched in my brain for a long time – probably forever.
May 9, 2017 at 6:58 pm
Thank you for your lovely comment, Bernice. Happy writing!
May 9, 2017 at 12:52 pm
This is an interesting concept, Henneke and I would like to study it better.
Thank you for sharing.
If you want to know more, I recommend Jack Hart’s book “A Writer’s Coach” – chapter 9.
Also, see how other writers you admire implement this idea; that’s one of the best ways to learn more and improve your writing (it’s what I continue to do to improve my writing).
May 9, 2017 at 12:41 pm
A luminary once explained that, as we grow, we move from a state of unaware ignorance (we dont know that we dont know) through to a state of aware knowing.
Henneke, you’ve just helped us writers to be aware of the abstraction ladder AND to know how to use it. Thank you indeed.
May 9, 2017 at 6:56 pm
Yes, that’s so true… moving from a state of unaware ignorance to a state of aware ignorance can be quite scary so I wanted to make sure this post moved you all the way to a state of aware knowing. That’s how I like to write my blog posts 🙂
Thank you for your lovely comment, Gary.
May 9, 2017 at 12:29 pm
Great post. Loved the stories and the examples. When you use examples like that, abstract vs concrete language does seem clearer. I didn’t fully understand it before but your examples helped me see the big picture of how each type of language works.
And can be effective.
Great job as usual.
May 9, 2017 at 6:54 pm
I also loved how Jack Hart explained this in his book The Writer’s Coach. I knew about the importance of specificity and have written about it before. But this was the first time, I heard about the ladder of abstraction – I love it!
May 9, 2017 at 12:27 pm
This was a fascinating article. What a great explanation of how abstract and concrete work together to paint a vivid picture and convey a message. And boy, could I relate to my eyes glazing over looking for a tidbit…
A Writer’s Coach sounds like a great read. And your drawings are fabulous!
Yes, the Writer’s Coach is an excellent read. It’s a great book for grazing (like reading a chapter here or there when you feel like it). I don’t think it’s a book to read from cover to cover in one session of binge reading.
Thank you for your compliment on my drawings. It was fun to draw a little more for this post 🙂
May 9, 2017 at 12:26 pm
This is an excellent post. It’s a step closer to understanding something I’ve been struggling to understand, this whole abstract VS concrete thing.
To be honest, I didn’t know this is one of the issues I struggled with. I mean, I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words. That’s what makes this post good.
May 9, 2017 at 5:46 pm
You’re not the only one. This is where I see most writers go wrong, and they don’t realize exactly why their writing feels bland.
Once you understand this dance between abstract and concrete ideas, you start seeing it in all good writing.
May 9, 2017 at 6:01 pm
I shall keep an eye open for the dance.
A question to a fellow litty: what do you think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven?
I recently read it. Lovely story, but her use of language is appalling.
Am I the only one who thinks so? I can’t seem to find straight crit on her work. It’s disturbing.
May 9, 2017 at 6:52 pm
I’ve not read any of her work (I’m not really into SF). I purchased her book “Steering the Craft,” but haven’t read it yet. So, I can’t really comment.
I’d say, trust your own judgment. A lot of writing is surprisingly poor.
May 9, 2017 at 12:23 pm
Great story again Henneke! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us time and again.
May 9, 2017 at 5:44 pm
It’s a pleasure to write for lovely readers like you, Olga! Seriously. I mean that 🙂
May 9, 2017 at 12:02 pm
Very interesting. I never considered writing or stories to sit on a scale of abstract to concrete. Or perhaps I just never considered it this way.
I know I finally broke my silence with your last post (or the one before?) and complimented you on how amazing of a writer I think you are, so my next sentence is probably going to make me sound like either a nut bag or a creepy fan, but I think your writing is art. This is the thought that popped into my mind after I navigated your once again magical story.
But then I pondered this a few more seconds and I thought, but no you’re also very clear in delivering and achieving what you set out to explain, so more mathematical. And then I decided that your writing is as beautiful as a simple, yet elegant math question and as adventurous and insightful as a beautiful piece of art.
To me being both math and art is golden.
What can I reply to such a lovely comment?
Thank you for your huge compliment, Charlie. You put a smile on my face 🙂
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Abstracts, Literature Reviews, and Annotated Bibliographies: Home
- Abstract Guides & Examples
- Literature Reviews
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- Student Research
What is an Abstract?
An abstract is a summary of points (as of a writing) usually presented in skeletal form ; also : something that summarizes or concentrates the essentials of a larger thing or several things. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online)
An abstract is a brief summary of a research article, thesis, review, conference proceeding or any in-depth analysis of a particular subject or discipline, and is often used to help the reader quickly ascertain the paper's purpose. When used, an abstract always appears at the beginning of a manuscript, acting as the point-of-entry for any given scientific paper or patent application. Abstraction and indexing services are available for a number of academic disciplines, aimed at compiling a body of literature for that particular subject. (Wikipedia)
An abstract is a brief, comprehensive summary of the contents of an article. It allows readers to survey the contents of an article quickly. Readers often decide on the basis of the abstract whether to read the entire article. A good abstract should be: ACCURATE --it should reflect the purpose and content of the manuscript. COHERENT --write in clear and concise language. Use the active rather than the passive voice (e.g., investigated instead of investigation of). CONCISE --be brief but make each sentence maximally informative, especially the lead sentence. Begin the abstract with the most important points. The abstract should be dense with information. ( Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association)
An abstract of a report of an empirical study should describe: (1) the problem under investigation (2) the participants with specific characteristics such as age, sex, ethnic group (3) essential features of the study method (4) basic findings (5) conclusions and implications or applications. An abstract for a literature review or meta-analysis should describe: (1) the problem or relations under investigation (2) study eligibility criteria (3) types of participants (4) main results, including the most important effect sizes, and any important moderators of these effect sizes (5) conclusions, including limitations (6) implications for theory, policy, and practice. An abstract for a theory-oriented paper should describe (1) how the theory or model works and the principles on which it is based and (2) what phenomena the theory or model accounts for and linkages to empirical results. An abstract for a methodological paper should describe (1) the general class of methods being discussed (2) the essential features of the proposed method (3) the range of application of the proposed method (4) in the case of statistical procedures, some of its essential features such as robustness or power efficiency. An abstract for a case study should describe (1) the subject and relevant characteristics of the individual, group, community, or organization presented (2) the nature of or solution to a problem illustrated by the case example (3) questions raised for additional research or theory.
- What is a Literature Review?
A literature review is a body of text that aims to review the critical points of current knowledge including substantive findings as well as theoretical and methodological contributions to a particular topic. Literature reviews are secondary sources, and as such, do not report any new or original experimental work.Most often associated with academic-oriented literature, such as a thesis, a literature review usually precedes a research proposal and results section. Its ultimate goal is to bring the reader up to date with current literature on a topic and forms the basis for another goal, such as future research that may be needed in the area.A well-structured literature review is characterized by a logical flow of ideas; current and relevant references with consistent, appropriate referencing style; proper use of terminology; and an unbiased and comprehensive view of the previous research on the topic. (Wikipedia)
Literature Review: An extensive search of the information available on a topic which results in a list of references to books, periodicals, and other materials on the topic. ( Online Library Learning Center Glossary )
"... a literature review uses as its database reports of primary or original scholarship, and does not report new primary scholarship itself. The primary reports used in the literature may be verbal, but in the vast majority of cases reports are written documents. The types of scholarship may be empirical, theoretical, critical/analytic, or methodological in nature. Second a literature review seeks to describe, summarize, evaluate, clarify and/or integrate the content of primary reports."
Cooper, H. M. (1988), "The structure of knowledge synthesis", Knowledge in Society , Vol. 1, pp. 104-126
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