Whatever we're writing, fiction or nonfiction, blogging or articles, sales letters or emails, we often find ourselves needing to convey an abstract concept. For example, in a marketing email, you are supposed to tap into your audience's pain. Whatever your audience's pain point, it's probably somewhat of an abstract concept. Stress. Want. Exhaustion. Fear. Need.

The better job you do of conveying that pain point, the more likely you are to connect with your audience.

Same thing with writing a book or an article. Unless you're writing about the technical process of making a widget, you probably have to convey some abstract ideas.

Again, the better job you do of conveying that abstract concept, the more likely your audience will understand and connect with what you're saying.

Abstraction comes into play in many ways: abstract theme, concrete theme, abstract language, concrete language, abstract words, concrete words. There is a place for all of those. Abstract in and of itself is not a bad thing. There are times when you want to be abstract, and there are times when you need to be concrete. You can find a place for both.

Here's an example from Marry Me by John Updike, quoted by Roy Peter Clark in Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (one of my favorite writing books):

"Outside their bedroom windows, beside the road, stood a giant elm, one of the few surviving in Greenwood. New leaves were curled in the moment after the bud unfolds, their color sallow, a dusting, a veil not yet dense enough to conceal the anatomy of the branches. The branches were sinuous, stately, constant; an inexhaustible comfort to her eyes. Of all things accessible to Ruth's vision, the elm most nearly persuaded her of a cosmic benevolence. If asked to picture God, she would have pictured this tree."

Concrete: New leaves were curled in the moment after the bud unfolds

Concrete: their color sallow

Abstract: a dusting, a veil not yet dense enough

Abstract: inexhaustible comfort

Abstract: most nearly persuaded her of a cosmic benevolence

Abstract: If asked to picture God, she would have pictured this tree

Basically, Updike is moving us up the ladder of abstraction. At the bottom of the ladder is very concrete. The higher you move up the ladder, the more abstract you get. This excerpt is the ultimate example of using the ladder of abstraction. It goes from very concrete (tree) to very abstract (God).

You don't want your readers to be stuck in the middle: not enough concrete info for someone to grasp what you are saying and not enough abstraction to get a deeper meaning. If you're in the middle - and stay in the middle - your reader will never see, hear, taste, touch, smell, and will never truly understand the depth of what you're trying to say.

So how do you navigate the ladder successfully?

First, you have to figure out where you are on the ladder. If you're three rungs from the middle (middle being neutral) toward abstract, then bring in more of the concrete.

It's not necessary that all of our writing goes up and down, concrete to abstract. You are just using language to serve your needs and your readers' needs.

Secondly, use the law of opposites. If you're conveying an abstract concept, use more concrete language and examples. If you're conveying something fairly concrete, then you have leeway to bring in some abstract language (which strengthens your writing and helps it stand out among all the seventh-grade-level writing out there).

Third, move up the ladder when necessary. Ask, "What does that mean?" That question moves us up the ladder. You can also use metaphors, similes, and a little bit of "tell."

Fourth, move down the ladder when necessary. Ask, "Can you give me an example?" That question moves us down the ladder. Use "show; don't tell," examples, sensory details, stories, and illustrations.

Bonus tip: Sometimes your writing can fulfill both abstract and concrete. Think of fog. In and of itself fog is a very concrete thing, AND we can use it as a metaphor (for state of mind, as an example). Fog actually serves both places on the ladder.

Have fun on that ladder, and don't fall off!

Author's Bio: 

Dawn Shuler, Content Creator Extraordinaire, helps entrepreneurs and authors convey their deep message into compelling words, whether it's marketing material or a book, as well as to create powerful content to increase their credibility, visibility, and profitability. Her soul purpose is to help entrepreneurs unleash their authentic selves into their businesses through their content. She created the Writing From Your Soul system to help business owners connect more powerfully, reach more people, and make a difference. Download the free, 13-step system at www.WritingFromYourSoul.com.