A ladder reaches to the sky on a starry night.

What Bessie the cow can teach us about the ladder of abstraction

All the back-and-forth email was becoming a bit frustrating.

“Where you mention ‘experiential activities’, can you give me some examples?” I wrote to one equine therapy provider.

“Please explain what you mean by ‘blindfolded exercises’?” I said to another.

“What is a ‘horse Zen concept relationship’?” I asked still another.

I was writing a round-up story about different equine therapy retreats around the world.

Lacking the time or budget to experience them all for myself – which would have been the ideal but was hopelessly unrealistic – I was tasked instead with dragging the details out of the operators from a distance.

And it was proving quite the challenge to shift them from the high and middle rungs of the ladder of abstraction.

What is the ladder of abstraction?

I was a latecomer to the mental model known as the ladder of abstraction, but I’ve found it incredibly useful since.

It was in Brisbane, at a 2015 writing workshop with Mark Kramer, founding director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University (2001–2007), that this concept came to life for me.

Kramer has written for the New York Times MagazineNational GeographicThe Atlantic Monthly and more. In other words, he really knows what he’s doing.

Essentially, he explained, the ladder of abstraction is a writing tool that helps you visualise how close you are to the action of a story.

So, if you were taking a photograph, for instance, it’s a bit like the difference between a close-up and a wide shot.

“Write low on the ladder of abstraction,” Kramer told us. I underlined that quote in my notebook. “The lower you are, the more specific and the more dynamic the read is.”

Where Bessie the cow comes into it

I later learned that the ladder of abstraction comes from a 1939 book Language in Action by US linguist Samuel Hayakawa.

His work revealed how our language progresses from the tangible and concrete – the bottom rung of the ladder – through to the conceptual and abstract – the very top rung, swathed in clouds.

In between are a succession of other rungs, all gradually stepping up in their level of abstraction.

So, as Hayakawa did, consider a cow.

If you’d seen one grazing by the side of the road, and you’d pulled over to have a look, you’d notice a few things: its coarse hide, warm to the touch; the colour, rich and brown like chocolate; the earthy smell; the large, liquid eyes; the sound it makes when chewing grass.

That’s the bottom rung, the most concrete level of any concept. (Some would argue that the atoms and molecules that make up the cow are the lowest level, but let’s not get bogged down.)

Climb one rung up and you’d arrive at this specific cow’s name – Bessie. Already, this simple moniker leaves out some of these finer details from the rung below.

Another step higher and you’d come to the concept of a ‘cow’ – not just Bessie, but the abstract characteristics common to all cows, but different to other four-legged animals like dogs or horses.

Climb one more rung up to the even more abstract level of ‘livestock’ where Bessie the cow is lumped in with all other farmyard animals, including chickens, pigs and goats.

Keep climbing. At higher levels, according to Hayakawa, Bessie would be considered a ‘farm asset’ (along with the farmer’s plant and machinery), then an ‘asset’ (like cash, bank deposits, real estate and other valuable resources a farmer might have at his disposal).

‘Wealth’, on this ladder, represents the highest level of abstraction – an amorphous concept that still encapsulates Bessie but says nothing about her at all.

But what does this all have to do with writing?

In his book Storycraft, Jack Hart argues that the ladder of abstraction is “one of the most useful concepts for any writer”.

(Incidentally, it’s also handy for speakers, presenters, and many others.)

Hart says that good storytelling requires two fundamentally different narratives.

When you step back from the action, you write in summary narrative; when you get up close and personal, you’ve moved into scenic narrative.

The difference between the two lies largely in their relative positions on the ladder of abstraction.

The lowest rungs of the ladder place the reader at the scene, with all the sensory, emotional, and other telling details that make a story visceral.

Hart provides the example of a piece of writing about rafters navigating a whitewater challenge after a downpour:

“… they were swinging sideways when they hit the next set of waves. The raft capsized, catapulting Byars into the water. McDougal stayed in his seat, virtually upside down. As the raft rose with the next wave, McDougal yanked hard on an oar and righted his boat …”

This is scenic (concrete) narrative where you can practically feel the spray from the raging river hit your face. You’re close to the action, and perhaps even a part of it.

Hart contrasts this with another passage:

“After navigating the first ten miles and splashing through thirty-four rapids, McDougal’s group pulled over at Klondike Creek to set up camp.”

This is summary (more abstract) narrative. It gets us from A to B quickly, providing a broader overview, rather than the detail.

The ladder, Hart says, then ascends further to encapsulate increasingly more abstract categories – including members of that rafting party, all river rafters, all outdoor adventurers, all human beings, and so on.

Hart points out that the lower rungs of the ladder allow readers to form concrete images and feel some of what the characters in the story are going through.

Climb higher on the ladder of abstraction, and you’ll trade specificity for something that also has value – meaning and context.

So, for example, what whitewater rafters are prepared to do might provide some insights into risk-taking behaviour and activities more generally.

“Good writing constantly ascends and descends the ladder of abstraction,” Hart writes.

“They show and tell.”

In Sharing the secrets of fine narrative journalism, writer Christopher Scanlan emphasises the importance of doing both in every piece of writing.

He urges writers to go “roaming up and down the ladder of abstraction, showing and telling, explaining and exemplifying, and juxtaposing abstractions”.

Putting the ladder of abstraction to work

In time, I coaxed sufficient details out of equine therapy providers, abseiling down to take the story from lofty statements about “human-horse connection” to what participants would sense, feel and experience when they joined one of these programs.

At the same time, I still had to include enough about why equine therapy has become ‘a thing’ and to move beyond the practices (concrete), to touch on some of the principles (abstract) underpinning it.

The story is set to appear in The Australian (Travel + Luxury).

Some of the questions I’ve found helpful in “grounding” a story in this way, by hovering around the lower rungs of the ladder of abstraction, include:

  • How does this work in practice?
  • Can you give me an example/case study?
  • What does the subject look like, sound like, smell like?
  • Where is this happening, exactly?
  • Tell me about a time when (something relevant to the topic) …
  • When you say (X) what do you mean?
  • What would an observer have seen?

Other times, you’ll need to start clambering up the ladder of abstraction, to signpost the meaning or relevance of your story. Some useful questions can include:

  • What does this mean for (potentially impacted parties)?
  • Are you aware of other instances of (topic)?
  • Is this an isolated incident or a broader trend?
  • Are there statistics that support this as a movement/trend?
  • What outcomes do you expect?
  • What do readers need to know to understand the significance of (X)?
  • What’s the background/broader context?
  • How would you summarise this?
  • What are your conclusions?

I still like to run the ladder of abstraction over every story I write, to make sure I’m hitting a few rungs. If I’m having trouble ‘connecting’ with a story on an emotional level, it’s probably because it’s too abstract (stuck on the higher rungs of the ladder). If I’m finding myself asking ‘So what?’ or ‘Who cares?’ it’s probably because the narrative is too concrete, making it grasp the broader implications of a story beyond the characters who appear in the narrative.

The ladder of abstraction is also a useful tool when it comes to generating fresh story ideas. For instance, can you turn a sprawling abstract topic (about a new law, policy, budget, trend or other issue) into something compact and compelling by illustrating, with a case study, how it’s impacting an individual, or family, or community? Equally, can you find other examples of something small and specific to illustrate a broader trend? I did that with these trend pieces on paid paparazzi experiences and urban honesty stalls in The Guardian Australia. Trend pieces are one of my favourite types of stories to write.

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Over to you …

Have you ever used the ladder of abstraction before? What other questions help you ascend or descend the ladder?