Specifics and Abstraction

Specific detail engages readers and moves their emotions. But we can’t write everything at that level; we need abstractions to frame the detail. S. I. Hayakawa invented a wonderful scheme to describe the interaction between the specific and the abstract, called “The Ladder of Abstraction.” It involves a vertical spectrum with specifics at the bottom and abstraction at the top. Here’s an example using my cat; read from the bottom:

Don Fry’s tortoise-point Siamese cat named “Thebesy.”

Thebesy occupies the bottom rung of this ladder because there is only one such cat. We could go into smaller detail, such as her pointy ear tips or her habit of hiding dead lizards under the rug, but she remains unique. As we move up the ladder, she starts to get abstract, reaching a Platonic ideal at the top. As we write, we try to stay near the bottom of the ladder to keep the readers engaged, but we move up and down, like this:

Our beloved cat died, so Joan and I wanted to replace her immediately. Our local breeder, Joan Bernstein, showed us a variant of Siamese we had never heard of: a Tortoise-Point. One look at Thebesy, who had just rolled over onto her back, and we were hooked. Ms. Bernstein threw in Thebesy’s grandmother Cairo to sweeten the deal.

We start partway up the ladder with “our beloved cat” and move down to Thebesy playing on a rug. You can go higher up the ladder to capture an abstraction like “pet,” or further up to “companionship.”

Why don’t writers stay at the most attractive end of the spectrum, the specific bottom? Some writers avoid the foot of the ladder to keep from making mistakes. Editors instruct their reporters to “get the brand of the beer, the make of the car, and the name of the dog.” But if I tell you my cat is named “Thebesy,” you might worry about misspelling such a queer name, and leave it out. So you call her a “Tortoise-point Siamese,” but you’ve never heard of a “Tortoise-point,” so you leave that out. Keep up that kind of timid thinking, and you’ll call her a “pet.” When you find yourself thinking defensively, say, “Go down the ladder.”

Sometimes you don’t know enough to be specific, and you can’t find out. Take this example: “An object pierced the windshield of the Volvo S-50 and struck Harold Panko in the right temple before ricocheting out the passenger window.” We rise up the ladder to “object,” because police haven’t found it yet. But don’t give up too fast; keep digging for the specific.

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 8:32 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] skilled writers learn how to make abstractions work for them in small doses, a little dab will do ya. Strive for the concrete, particularly when it comes to congregational […]

  2. Dear Bobby and Kristen,
    Thanks for the link. Writing principles work in all genres and subjects. Don

  3. Hey there, You have done an incredible job. I’ll definitely digg it and personally suggest to my
    friends. I am sure they’ll be benefited from this site.

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