Raise your hand if you’ve ever quit reading a blog post half way through. If you’ve ever zoned out after a few hundred words, it’s not your fault. A post might have a headline so compelling that it makes Buzzfeed writers envious and promise to give you info that you’ve spent years searching for.
But if the writing itself is bland, your eyes will wander.
Keeping Attention After You’ve Earned It
Here’s the challenge all bloggers face. Once you’ve pulled readers to your content, how do you keep them there? Dull prose supported by clever marketing makes readers feel cheated. Even if the ideas in your piece are genius.
It’s simple: you bump up your average time on page with killer writing that pulsates with life in every sentence.
Ok, but how exactly do you do that? Do you hope the writing fairy blesses you with superhuman sentence constructing powers in the middle of the night? I suppose that couldn’t hurt. But based on my experience, it’s more productive to use tactics that bloggers already use make their posts vibrant.
If you think your post is more bland than un-buttered white toast, revise it with help from “The Ladder of Abstraction.” This is a concept concocted by S.I. Hayakawa, a Canadian-born linguist who served in the U.S. Senate from 1977-1983. He first introduced it in his classic semantics text Language in Action.
“The Ladder of Abstraction” helps us use a more mature version of the classic piece of writing advice “Show, don’t tell.” This is the idea that you should demonstrate what you’re trying to explain through examples, rather than direct explanation or exposition.
“Show don’t tell” is so common, it has its own Wikipedia page (by comparison, not even the advice “Look both ways before you cross the street” has its own Wikipedia page). Even though, I would argue, the latter is more important.
As frequently as it is espoused by teachers, it’s a weak guide for improving your writing. It’s weak not because it’s bad advice. It’s worse. It’s actually really awesome advice that’s poorly expressed. There are plenty of writers who could use a little “show don’t tell” in their lives. But it still isn’t ideal.
There are two big issues with it:
1) It’s Vague
How do you connect what you want to say to what you’re showing? How specific should the example be? How can we understand how “showing” relates to “telling”?
2) There’s Nothing Wrong with Telling
George Orwell, one of the greatest writers in English, once wrote, “Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”
That’s a beautiful, elegant, and piercing sentence. It’s also telling. There’s nothing specific being referenced. There are no pictures painted with words. Orwell is just telling it like it is, directly and succinctly. When done well, “telling” is fine.
“Show don’t tell” works for high school writing students. But you? You’re a pro. You need something a little more sophisticated to guide your writing. Something that explains what “Show don’t tell” is trying to get at, but with surgical precision.
The Ladder Of Abstraction
Here’s how it works. Words and concepts can be placed on a continuum, from the vague and abstract to the concrete and real. The most abstract concepts are at the top of the ladder, while the most concrete are at the bottom.
For example, at the top of the ladder, you might have a big concept like “Information”. But if we climb down a little bit , we see a concept like “Publications”. A publication is connected to “Information” but it’s more real, more concrete. Then if we climb even further down, we might see “Books.” Then “Novels.” Then “Pulitzer-prize winning novels.” Then “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Then “My personal copy of To Kill A Mockingbird.”
At the top of the ladder we have something so broad, it encompasses computer code, DNA, braille, television programs, this blog post, and thousands of other things. But the words on the bottom of the ladder refer to something so concrete, there’s only one in existence.
Top-of-the-ladder is where big, heady ideas call home. Concepts like life, success, peace, and business all live up there. They’re the “3AM dorm room discussion” concepts.
But here’s the problem. Human beings, in our day to day lives, only experience things at the bottom of the ladder. We wake up to a particular alarm clock. And then we eat a specific breakfast. Then we leave a one-of-a-kind home and go to a concrete job.
So consequently, writing that spends its time at the top of the ladder, as brainy as it might be, leaves us cold. We strain our necks upward and squint our eyes to see what it’s trying to say. It gets us thinking, but it doesn’t stimulate our imagination. It feels so distant from our place here on earth. So we’re tempted to walk away and find something we can actually connect with.
So how can you use The Ladder of Abstraction to give CPR to lifeless blog posts? Simple. When writing is bland, it’s usually because it spends too much time at the top of the ladder. The blogger has failed to connect their ideas to where we live, at the bottom of the ladder.
When you’re writing or revising, ask yourself: “Is my language too broad? Is there a way I can bring this down the ladder of abstraction?”
You usually will. And your readers will thank you for taking the extra effort.
Let’s pretend that you’re writing a post about questions you should ask your daughter’s boyfriend, aimed at parents of teens. So after you talk about how hard it is to know your daughter is of dating age, you type this:
“You feel like she’s not interested in upstanding young men. Instead, you suspect she’s interested in boys with low moral character.”
There’s nothing grammatically wrong with those sentences. But you should brace yourself for an embarrassingly high bounce rate if you actually publish that.
“Upstanding young men” is too abstract. It could mean anything from a boy scout who volunteers all of his spare time to a kid who gets okay grades in school and generally stays out of trouble. Same goes for “boys with low moral character”. It’s hard for anything specific to form in your mind after you hear that.
You want to take these abstract concepts and bring them down the ladder of abstraction. So you revise what you wrote to this:
“Your instincts say that she’s not bringing home a pocket protector-toting honor student, either. And if the campus bad boy is picking up your daughter on his motorcycle, you probably feel justified in being a little concerned.”
Boom. You’re no longer talking about vague people. You’ve brought them down the ladder of abstraction by creating simple characters that clearly show what you’re talking about.
In fact, if you wanted to, you could bring it even further down by getting more concrete and specific. What does that pocket protector hold? What classes does honor student excel in? What brand of motorcycle does the bad boy ride?
None of those extra details are necessary, and they might not even improve to piece. But when you have the ladder of abstraction in the back of your mind, they’ll always be extra options to consider and explore.
But What About Telling?
So does that mean you should never tell?
Absolutely not. Telling is fine, as long as you connect it to something more real and concrete. Take for example, Gregory Ciotti, a popular essayist over at the blog Sparring Mind, and with whom I have no affiliation other than admiration. One of his posts starts with this sentence:
“Quality output demands quality input.”
That’s clearly the kind of telling your 11th grade English teacher warned you about. It’s very high on the ladder of abstraction. But because Ciotti is a great writer, he takes us down a few rungs on the next sentence.
“As healthy food fuels the body, so does brain food fuel the mind.”
The post goes on to walk even farther down the ladder. He talks about how the information you get from television, the internet, and other sources can impact your life and success.
It works because he connects a big, heady, broad idea to the day-to-day reality of thinking, learning, and consuming information.
Use This Writing Tip to Polish Your Posts in Seconds
The beauty of the ladder of abstraction is that you can use it all day long to punch up your prose without breaking a sweat. And I should know, because I do.
Instead of writing: “Stop worrying about your business.”
Write: “Stop losing sleep because your business has lost its direction.”
Instead of writing: “He drove the car recklessly.”
Write: “His tires screeched as he steered the BMW around tight turns.”
Instead of writing: “Computer problems are frustrating.”
Write: “A mysteriously slow PC can make you hate the day the microchip was invented.”
When you grab your airy abstractions and pull them down into gritty reality, your posts are instantly more engaging. And more engaging posts create more successful blogs.
Feature Image: mtlapcevic via Shutterstock
Ladder of Abstraction Image: Logan Strain