Tool #22 Climb Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction

"Learn to know when to show, when to tell, and when to do both." - Roy Peter Clark

 In last week's post, I shared when you should exaggerate or underestimate depending on the topic. If you are selling something that sells itself, minimal words and simple language is all you need. However, if what you want people to buy is a little on the dull side or possibly down-right boring, use hyperboles to express its significance. 

This week's tool, of all the tools I have written about, is the most powerful. It forces people to ponder the language through its expressive intent. In his book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark explains the utilization of this tool. First, however, he helps us paint a clearer picture by describing the two nouns in the title: Ladder and Abstraction.

The Concrete Ladder vs Thought-Provoking Abstraction

Let's start with the ladder. A ladder is a concrete object. You can climb a ladder to get to the top of a tree and rescue your cat Sprinkles, and you can climb down the ladder to touch the ground with your feet protected by your shoes. This description is all very matter of factly written, but it appeals directly to your senses.

So what about abstraction? Abstraction forces you to use your intellect. Concepts that force us to think may require more time for you to make a decision. Using ideas is at the top of the ladder, but we need concrete evidence to prove our beliefs. Here is an example that Clark uses to get the point across:

A 1964 essay by John Updike begins, "We live in an era of gratuitous inventions and negative improvements." That language is general and abstract, near the top of the ladder. It provokes our thinking, but what concrete evidence leads Updike to his conclusion? The answer is in his second sentence: "Consider the beer can." To be even more specific, Updike complained that the invention of the pop-top ruined the aesthetic experience of opening a can of beer. Pop-top and beer rest at the bottom of the ladder, aesthetic experience at the top.

Show-and-Tell your Ladder of Abstraction

So how can the content marketer utilize this technique? Let's go back to kindergarten for a minute to discuss the all-time favorite classroom experience: show-and-tell. Think of an item that you want to sell. It could be something as simple as a Teddy Bear. The Teddy Bear is a concrete object that one can hold and find comfort in its softness and cuteness. This explanation is the abstraction. The result of the Teddy Bear is how it makes one feel when holding it.

As the content marketer, find ways to climb up and down the ladder. Just don't get caught in the middle, where the lines of abstraction and concrete items can get crossed or tangled. Don't let your guard down. You may forget the point you were making, and the consumer may move on to something a little more relative to their experience.

A few Helpful Hints when Utilizing the Concrete and Abstract Theory

  1. Don't overuse abstract language without concrete evidence. The reader or consumer will not get the point and will get lost in language instead of the invention.

  2. Utilize similes and metaphors to make an abstract idea more concrete and relatable to the experience. Just as children see life in images, it helps the reader or consumer relate to the event or product. 

  3. Be sure to focus your content efforts on starting with one and then ending with another. In other words, if you start with an abstract idea, be sure to add a concrete explanation. If you start with a tangible object, be sure to use abstraction to provide a purpose to the object. 

Do you need help selling your products? Qulity content sells. Contact me for a complimentary consultation. We can discuss how this tool will improve your sales.


Clark, R. P. (2008). Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Columbus, GA: Little, Brown.

Right-Handed Writing 

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