Notes for Travel Writers on the "Ladder of Abstraction"

by David Miller Aug 6, 2010
The tips in this article complement the curriculum of the Travel Writing program at MatadorU.

FULL DISCLOSURE: This post is in response to a request from reader G.B.S.N.P. Varma, who wanted me to write on the “Ladder of Abstraction” in the context of how it pertains to and can be used by travel writers.


1. The “Ladder of Abstraction” is a concept originally popularized by S.I. Hayakawa half a century ago in a now classic text : Language in Thought and Action.

2. An interesting note: Hayakawa added a preface to the 1949 edition of the book which contained the following warning:

The original version of this book, Language in Action, published in 1941, was in many respects a response to the dangers of propaganda, especially as exemplified in Adolf Hitler’s success in persuading millions to share his maniacal and destructive views. It was the writer’s conviction then, as it remains now, that everyone needs to have a habitually critical attitude towards language — his own as well as that of others — both for the sake of his personal well-being and for his adequate functioning as a citizen.

3. The ladder of abstraction is a hierarchy for language based on its “concreteness” or specificity.

In the example at right, as you move up the ladder it goes from specific, concrete, to more general, abstract.

Notice how the most specific element, the “M16A2 Rifle” may or may not be identifiable depending on one’s background, whereas the second most specific “rifle” would be almost universally recognizable.

Contrast this with how the most abstract concepts such as “Instrument of War” and “Material” would be universally recognizable as concepts, and yet without any identifiable traits / properties, they remain open to one’s interpretation as far as meaning.

4. Whereas less-skilled writers tend to move up and down the ladder of abstraction in big shifts (often starting at the bottom – a specific incident / anecdote – then staying near the middle for most of the story before shifting to some big abstraction / generalization / moral at the end), the most skilled writers continuously move up and down the ladder throughout the story–shifting in every paragraph and even sentence.

The following is taken from one of my favorite travels stories of all time, David Foster Wallace’s “Shipping Out,” an account of being a passenger aboard the mega cruise ship Nadir, originally published in 1996 at Harper’s:

Mornings in port are a special time for the semi-agoraphobe, because just about everybody else gets off the ship and goes ashore for Organized Shore Excursions or for unstructured peripatetic tourist stuff, and the m.v. Nadir’s upper decks have the eerily delicious deserted quality of your folks’ house when you’re home sick as a kid and everybody else is gone. We’re docked off Cozumel, Mexico. I’m on Deck 12. A couple guys in software-company T-shirts jog fragrantly by every couple of minutes, but other than that it’s just me and the zinc oxide and hat and about a thousand empty and identically folded deck chairs.

5.(a) Note how DFW moves up and down the ladder of abstractions, using more general terms (such as “deserted quality” of “your folks house”) to convey a situation (being aboard a luxury cruise) that may be unrecognizable to many people.

(b) He also juxtaposes and plays with different layers of the ladder (“We’re docked off Cozumel, Mexico.” vs. “I’m on Deck 12.”) to express the various layers of reality and his dislocation, isolation, and insulation from them.

(c) Bonus “assignment” – identify 5 places DFW shifts up and down the ladder of abstraction in this paragraph.

6. In several pieces here at Matador including:

*Notes on Codification and Commodification in Travel Writing
*How to Discern Fallacious Arguments
*3 Writing Styles that Kill Authenticity [Note: In retrospect this seems like a really suck-ass title.]

I have tried to recognize / analyze common patterns in travel writing, particularly the pervasiveness of generalizations, cliches, abstractions (the top of the ladder), as well as rhetorical constructions and other ways in which travel writing is codified. In general I have encouraged concrete language–using precise words and names for things–as a starting point for transparency in one’s narration style.

7.(a) A more effective analysis however, might begin with understanding not just concrete language but its overall place on the ladder of abstraction. For example, a very common characteristic of many travel stories is beginning with settings which, in their attempt to “start off with a bang,” use such specific language that they end up sounding, ironically, like abstractions or cliches, and may alienate the reader. These are the stories that begin like:

“Sharwa Nuktpa gave me a third cup of yak-milk as the tuk tuk bounced along the windswept road to Dhulikhel.”

(b) Returning to the story that led to G.B.S.N.P.Varma’s comment / request for me to write on this subject, I began pretty much at the center of the ladder:

I’ve never seen him in town.

(c) I slowly got more concrete in my descriptions:

He always has something in his hands or over his shoulder: a bushel of kale, a wheelbarrow loaded with carrots, a hose, a water pump, a shovel, a roll of bailing wire, a machete, a stack of fenceboards.

(d) It’s worth noting that all of these things, while concrete, are still generally recognizable.

(e) I don’t actually get to a super concrete “explanations” until the second section:

Since we’ve moved here¹ eight months ago the fields have been divided up for future neighborhoods.

¹ El Bolsón, Patagonia, Argentina

(f) I end the story in the same place on the ladder as I began it.

(g) I didn’t actually think about the ladder of abstraction as I wrote this story, but just wrote it as closely to the way I perceived the actual events at ground level as possible.

8. One last note is that while nouns (person – place – thing) naturally fit on the ladder, consider verbs / verbal phrases as well: danced salsa>>danced>>>stepped.

In conclusion, I don’t think about the ladder of abstraction in any terms of right or wrong, but more in the context of its application, of understanding how concrete vs. abstract language affects the reader.

Community Connection

Thanks G.B.S.N.P.Varma for requesting I write on this.

Here’s an additional resource for learning about Ladder of Abstraction:

*Get access to paid freelance travel writing opportunities and an active community of travel journalists by enrolling in the MatadorU Travel Writing program.

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