The Ladder of Abstraction

Guest post by OpEd Project Facilitator Amy Gutman.

For your writing motivation, here is an incredibly useful tool for all of us seeking to amplify our voices. It’s called The Ladder of Abstraction.

The basic idea is this:


When you embark on an oped (or other argument), start with the SPECIFIC illustrative anecdote, fact, quote or scene—that’s the bottom of the ladder—to hook your reader. Think: Concrete/singular/sensory.

The second rung on the ladder is SUMMARY:  This includes objective data and other facts that establish significance and context.  Most people have no idea how much time they spend on this rung, notes Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, who teaches writing at Harvard’s Kennedy School and is, incidentally, an OpEd Project alum. (My introduction to the Ladder came during her recent workshop on Writing About Social Justice Passions.) Pieces with too much summary tend to feel dry and (often) boring.

The third and final rung is ABSTRACT/INTERPRETIVE: This is where you bring in your own insights, analogies, metaphors—you might think of it as the value added of YOU, as you reflect on the topic.

Strong writing generally starts at the bottom of the ladder and from there moves up and down—not staying on any one rung for all too long. To learn more, here’s a helpful piece from on the concept.




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