In writing, we often take refuge in abstractions. We rely on them to make our statements clear and concise. In some cases, this is unavoidable. But abstractions can also be a crutch that obscures meaning and weakens our arguments. It’s important to be aware of the dangers of abstraction and to use it wisely. In this post, we’ll look at the uses and abuses of abstraction in writing and share some strategies for avoiding its pitfalls as a creative writer.
What Is an Abstraction in Writing and Why Is It Important
When you write about abstractions, it’s important to understand what they’re and why they’re important.
An abstraction is a general concept or idea that’s not concrete or tangible. In other words, it’s an attempt to describe intangible things such as feelings, emotions, ideas, and concepts. Abstract terms are complex and often ambiguous topics used in everyday language and writing.
Everyday examples of abstract terms include “freedom,” “love,” “pride,” and so on. Unlike concrete concepts such as ” car” or “table” that can be seen, touched, or felt, abstract concepts cannot be perceived by the five senses, but they exist in our minds as thoughts and memories.
When we describe abstract concepts like freedom or pride, we use adjectives to express what they mean to us because they don’t have physical characteristics that can be observed.
Their complexity lies in our very inability to concretely label them.
Freedom, for example, means different things to different people. Some think of political terms like the right to vote or freedom of speech, while others think of personal independence from other people, such as being single after a breakup.
Because abstractions aren’t concrete, they can be difficult to discuss or explain. Yet they’re often at the heart of some of the most important ideas and concepts in our lives. For example, when we talk about freedom or justice, we’re really talking about abstractions. Without an understanding of these concepts, it would be difficult to have a meaningful discussion about them.
Moreover, abstractions can be used as tools for creativity and invention. When we think about abstract concepts in new ways, we can find new ideas and solutions.
For example, when Einstein was trying to develop his theory of relativity, he thought about the abstraction of time in a new way which led to his groundbreaking discovery.
Even though abstractions are difficult to define or understand, they play an important role in our lives and in our ability to think creatively.
Both Abstract and Concrete Words Describe Something, but They Do So in Very Specific Ways
In writing, both abstract and concrete language is used to describe something. However, they describe it in very specific ways.
Abstract words are usually adjectives or verbs that describe feelings, ideas, qualities, or characteristics. Concrete words are almost always nouns that refer to things we can see, touch, hear, taste, or smell.
When you write about abstract concepts, concrete words are often used to give an example of the concept being described. For example, if you’re describing the concept of love, you might use a concrete word like “kiss” to make your point.
On the other hand, if you’re writing about the concept of anger, you might use an abstract word like “frustration” to describe it. In both cases, the words you choose help create a certain image in the reader’s mind. Therefore, they’re an important tool in descriptive writing.
Abstract words are general and interpretive and often convey more complex or emotional meaning. When you write about abstracts, it’s important to choose the right word type to accurately convey the intended meaning.
An Abstract Word Is a General Term That Refers to an Idea
When we speak of “abstract” words, we refer to those that describe concepts or ideas rather than tangible objects.
Many words in our language can be classified as abstract, including “love,” “truth,” and “justice.” Because these terms aren’t directly connected to physical objects, they can be difficult to define. Nevertheless, they’re an important part of our language that we can use to convey complex ideas.
When you write about abstract concepts, it’s important to be as clear and precise as possible. This can be a challenge, as it’s easy to get caught up in flowery language or nebulous concepts. However, with a little care and attention, it’s possible to effectively convey even the most difficult ideas.
Ultimately, it’s about finding a balance between precision and clarity. With practice, you’ll be able to write about abstract concepts with confidence and ease.
Example of Abstract Writing
For example, “happiness” is an abstract word because it describes a particular state that cannot be observed or experienced by any of the five senses. Instead, happiness is defined by the feelings a person has when he or she experiences it.
To clarify this difference, think about the word “happiness.” Happiness is an abstract concept because it describes a specific state, but one that cannot be directly observed or experienced through the senses.
Think about how you’d describe to someone how you’re happy: you might say you feel content or excited; you might have a smile on your face and feel full of energy. However, there’s no way to actually see happiness because it’s a state that exists only in the imagination.
This means that when you write about happiness, you need to use your power words – vivid verbs and nouns – to create concrete images in your reader’s minds by describing what they’d see or hear if they were there during one of your experiences of happiness.
Your Audience Will React Differently Depending on Which Type You Use in Your Writing
When writing about abstractions, it’s important to understand the difference between these types of words because your audience will react differently depending on which type you use in your writing.
For example, if you’re writing about a concept like “love,” you might use the word “affection” to describe the physical manifestation of love, or the word “passion” to describe the emotional intensity of love.
However, if you were to use the word “lust” instead, your audience would likely interpret your writing in a completely different way. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of the connotations of the words you use when writing about abstractions, as they can significantly affect how your audience perceives your work.
Abstract words have less effect on readers than concrete words. They don’t create a clear picture in the reader’s mind and are often more difficult to understand. The word laughter is abstract and has less effect on the reader than a clause like “his explosive laughter.”
Avoid Using Too Many Abstract Words at Once
When it comes to writing about abstract things, it’s important not to use too many abstract words at once. Otherwise, your text will become confusing and difficult to understand.
Instead, try to focus on concrete examples that illustrate the abstraction. For example, if you’re writing about the concept of love, you could describe a moment when you felt loved or when you showed love to someone.
By giving concrete examples, your text will be more understandable and the reader will be able to follow it more easily. You can also use metaphors and similes to explain the abstraction more concretely.
Ultimately, you can use a combination of concrete examples and figurative language to effectively convey your ideas without getting lost in abstraction.
How Can You Identify Abstractions in Your Own Writing
Abstractions are concepts or ideas that aren’t concrete, and they can be hard to define.
However, there are a few ways you can identify abstractions in your writing.
- First, consider whether the subject of your sentence is something you can experience with your senses. If not, it’s probably an abstraction. For example, the concept of love cannot be seen, heard, or touched.
- Second, consider whether the subject of your sentence is something that can be measured. If not, then it’s probably an abstraction. For example, the idea of happiness isn’t something that can be measured.
- Finally, ask yourself if the subject of your sentence is something that can be defined. If not, then it’s probably an abstraction. The concept of justice, for example, is open to interpretation and can mean different things to different people.
You can also ask yourself a series of questions about what you mean by each part of your text:
- What do you mean by this sentence?
- What do I mean by this paragraph?
- What do I mean by this chapter?
How Can You Use Abstractions to Make Your Writing More Effective
In literature, abstraction is often used to state a fact more effectively. When used well, an abstraction can clarify a concept, help the reader better understand an idea, or reinforce a feeling.
However, when used poorly, abstraction can be confusing, vague, or even misleading. Therefore, it’s important to use abstractions carefully and thoughtfully to maximize their effectiveness in writing.
There are several ways that abstractions can be used effectively in writing.
One way is to use abstraction to represent a concrete object or idea. For example, instead of saying, “I drove my car to the store,” you might say, “I drove my new wheels down the street.” Using an abstraction can help give the reader a more vivid image and make your text more interesting.
Another way to use abstractions effectively is to use them as a substitute for complicated concepts or ideas. In other words, you can use abstraction as a shortcut for something that would otherwise require a long explanation. For example, instead of saying, “What I really need right now is some alone time to clear my head,” you could simply say, “I need some solitude.”
- Use abstractions to convey the main idea
- Use abstractions as writing tools to help readers understand your text
Specific Examples of Abstractions From Famous Writers
Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness.Martin Luther King Jr., Three Dimensions of a Complete Life
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
The intellect of man is forced to choose. Perfection of the life, or of the work.W.B. Yeats
I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.Edgar Allan Poe
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Mother Night
The Importance of Concrete Detail in Writing
When you write about abstract concepts, it’s important to use concrete images so that readers understand your ideas. By giving readers a concrete image that they can associate with abstraction, you make your text more understandable and memorable.
For example, if you’re writing about the concept of justice, you might use the image of a scale being balanced.
Or if you’re writing about love, you could use a picture of two people holding hands.
Although abstract images can be helpful in certain situations, they should be used sparingly. Too much abstraction can make your text confusing and hard to follow. When in doubt, use concrete images instead. They help your readers understand your ideas and engage with your text.
Many authors make the mistake of using abstract terms when they want to emphasize something or make their text sound pompous and artistic. However, this only makes the text seem forced and artificial.
An example of this would be, “The man cried out in pain as he felt his leg break on impact with the sidewalk” instead of “Sam broke his leg falling off his bike on the sidewalk and let out a scream.” The second sentence uses fewer words, but conveys exactly what happened – and in vivid detail!
Tips for Making Your Writing More Concrete
As any writer knows, one of the challenges of writing about abstract concepts is finding ways to make what’s written more concrete. After all, it can be hard for readers to imagine an idea that’s no physical form.
However, there are a few strategies that can help you make your writing and creative writing more concrete.
- First, try to use concrete phrases whenever possible. For example, instead of “park,” say “Central Park” and instead of “city,” say “New York City.” This will help readers better understand the location and context of your story.
- Second, try to include specific details and sensory impressions. For example, instead of saying “the flowers were beautiful,” say “the flowers were a riot of color.” The more specific you’re, the easier it’ll be for readers to imagine the scene.
- Finally, don’t be afraid to use metaphors and similes. They’re a great way to make your text interesting and structured while providing concrete images for readers to latch onto.
By following these tips, you can ensure that your text is as clear and lively as possible:
- Use concrete words
- Use concrete examples Use concrete images
- Use concrete nouns
- Avoid abstract words
- Avoid abstract concepts
- Avoid generalizations
- Avoid vague statements
The Ladder of Abstraction
The concept of an abstraction ladder was depicted by S.I. Hayakawa in Language in Thought and Action.
Climbing from the bottom rung to the top, Hayakawa’s ladder has eight rungs. I’ve paraphrased some of the ideas to try to make them simpler:
- The Process Level – e.g. the cow known to science: atoms, electrons, etc
- The Object of Experience – e.g. the cow we perceive (not named yet)
- The Name Level – e.g. Bessie, the name we give to the cow
- The Word Level – e.g. ‘cow’, the common word
- Broader Characteristics – e.g. ‘livestock’
- Even Broader Term – e.g. ‘farm assets’, lumping Bessie in with all other saleable items on the farm
- Broadest Term – e.g. ‘asset’, where even more characteristics of Bessie are omitted
- Highest Level of Abstraction – e.g. ‘wealth’, omitting almost all characteristics of Bessie