When Deborah Netburn moved to Los Angeles twenty years ago, she was flummoxed by how both droughts and downpours made dire headlines. During the storms that battered the region at the start of 2023, her editors asked Netburn, a staff reporter at the Los Angeles Times, to explore religious perspectives on rain from her beat of faith and spirituality. Netburn decided to focus on the paradox of how either too much or too little rain is always a problem—one poised to worsen with climate change. “Religion can really help process this tension of the opposites,” Netburn says.
Homing in on the dual nature of rain—simultaneously essential and destructive—Netburn produced a piece about how different belief systems handle this paradox, moving readers to consider a new way of living with extreme weather events. Her story riffed on intangible qualities such as the meaning we attach to weather—linking ground realities of floodwater with abstract concepts like faith. In doing so, she tapped into what the late U.S. senator and former English professor S.I. Hayakawa called the ladder of abstraction in his 1939 book, Language in Action.
The ladder of abstraction reflects how humans experience and process information, and ultimately make sense of the world. At its lowest rungs are specific examples of an object or idea, such as a Great Dane named Doc Hudson or a corgi named Macaroni. Moving a rung higher, our brains group these individual animals together as dogs. Further abstractions of dogs can evoke more intangible concepts, informing our ideas of pets, animals, family, and love. The climb on this ladder is “an indispensable convenience” that helps us process new information and grasp its deeper meaning, Hayakawa wrote.
Writers can harness this way our brains make meaning to elevate their storytelling. The ladder of abstraction can help writers connect specific details with abstract concepts, both essential pieces of vivid stories. By charting a course up the ladder, writers can deepen readers’ understanding and make their stories more memorable.
To build a strong ladder, writers must be intentional in gathering striking details that captivate readers and ground them in a story’s reality. Writers also have to be judicious, selecting a single abstract takeaway to affix atop the ladder. And they have to craft middle rungs sturdy enough to hold it all together. When constructed well, a story’s ladder of abstraction transports readers to a place of greater meaning and reveals a story’s all-important “why.” The goal is to “help the reader not just see what you saw,” Netburn says, “but understand better why [it] happened.”
Building a Strong Base
Climbing through layers of abstraction can be a bit like zooming in and out of a camera’s field of view: A picture snapped out an airplane window will capture a bright patchwork of color around the bay in San Francisco, but the source of those striking reds and greens—algae and brine shrimp inhabiting salt ponds—only become obvious when you crouch down by the water with a microscope. To understand the colorful landscape, “you have to go all the way to the bottom,” says San Diego–based freelance journalist Lauren Gravitz.
Vivid details and elaborate scenes help readers visualize a story as it unfolds. “If it pops a specific image in your head, I think of it as low on the abstraction ladder,” says Ohio-based freelance journalist Sophia Chen. This foundation of tangible, visible ideas primes readers to understand more abstract concepts higher up the ladder. After all, seeing is believing—and science backs this up. When psychologists studying the power of analogies asked study participants to envision how they’d use high-intensity radiation to destroy a tumor buried deep inside someone without damaging surrounding tissues, they struggled to find an answer. But, as the researchers found in a 1980 paper, participants had less trouble with the puzzle if they first read a story about a military leader splitting his soldiers into smaller groups and dispatching them onto different routes to sneak past an enemy’s defensive line. The radiation problem has a similar solution: Several low-intensity, less-harmful radiation beams could converge on the tumor.
“There comes a point where you’ve told the story, where you’ve described the detail, but you have to strive for meaning.” —Roy Peter Clark
The military analogy works because it elicits a clear mental image, says cognitive neuroscientist Apoorva Bhandari of Brown University. The key in making abstract ideas accessible, he says, “is to make things imageable.”
Making concepts easy for her readers to see is on Chen’s mind with every piece, she says. For a 2022 Wired story on a physical property of waves known as polarization, Chen’s initial draft compared the movement to a vibrating guitar string. But after growing concerned that her description wasn’t quite clear enough, she swapped it out for the rise and fall of an ocean wave, which is easier to envision.
Writers use a variety of reporting aids to nudge themselves to glean these sensory details: Some designate a section of their reporting notebook for jotting down ambient smells or sounds, in addition to notes from the interview itself; some snap photographs while out in the field; others comb through historical records for minute details. While reporting a January STAT story on the health effects of air pollution, Gravitz searched newspaper archives for telling details about her story’s setting: Mexico City. For example, in the nineties the air there was “so toxic that people would watch birds literally just fall out of the sky,” she says.
To know whether he’s gathered the necessary bottom-of-the-ladder material, New Delhi–based freelance journalist Ankur Paliwal writes his impressions down at the end of each reporting day and reflects on whether a scene feels evocative enough. Collecting the imagery he needs is an iterative—sometimes wrenching—process, he says. Paliwal spent months building the trust and connection necessary to gather deep personal details for his 2022 Fifty Two story “Off Balance,” about people living with a rare genetic disease that disrupts the ability to control movements.
When composing the final section of his AAAS Kavli award–winning story, Paliwal had to probe sources for details about how Shahid, the main character in his story, spent his last moments. When Shahid’s brother, Tabish, mentioned that their father asked him to bring a flower to his brother’s bedside, Paliwal asked what type of flower it was and where it came from. “It was a hard reporting moment,” he says. But being able to write that “Tabish ran out and plucked a rose from a garden nearby” and “placed it near Shahid’s nose,” allowed readers to visualize that final, poignant scene in greater detail.
Reaching the Top
Eventually, stuffing a section with rich detail will hit a point of diminishing returns, leaving a reader or listener wishing the narrator would just get to the point. If a story feels stuck or slow-paced, Gravitz says, it might be a sign that it’s time to switch to a different level of abstraction.
“There comes a point where you’ve told the story, where you’ve described the detail, but you have to strive for meaning,” says Roy Peter Clark, a writing coach and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. But to move higher up the ladder, writers have to determine what deeper meaning they want readers to reach.
How high you ultimately climb will depend on the nature of the story, as well as the outlet and audience. (Straight study stories or technical trade publications, for example, skew more towards the concrete than the abstract.) Regardless of the ladder’s height, though, it should be constructed like a solid A-frame, with the story converging onto a singular meaning for readers to digest.
Just as sensory details are evocative for most people, researchers have found that how our brains represent the intangible ideas of justice, truth, and faith in activity patterns is remarkably similar regardless of our different backgrounds.
If we’re thinking about our furry friends Macaroni and Doc Hudson, we could start down the trail of how corgis and Great Danes are both dogs, despite their differences, and how their evolutionary path diverged from other animals. Or we might mull how we bond with our pets and how they shape our notion of family. Both paths lead to abstract concepts; both started with Macaroni and Doc Hudson. But a story should only take one of these paths—and the writer should decide which one early on.
Finding the right top for your ladder may seem intimidating, but take comfort in the fact that there’s universal relatability at a good ladder’s top, as well as its bottom. Just as sensory details are evocative for most people, researchers have found that how our brains represent the intangible ideas of justice, truth, and faith in activity patterns is remarkably similar regardless of our different backgrounds.
Paliwal usually starts searching for a story’s higher meaning while reporting; he considers what abstract theme a story might inform and evaluates whether the details he gathers serve that purpose. “I keep going back and forth between these two things,” he says, “how those details interact with the big idea.”
Sometimes a source will lead you to a possible apex. When Sabrina Imbler, a staff writer at Defector, reported a 2022 New York Times piece about why a meme about the transitional fossil Tiktaalik had gone viral, they produced a piece that climbs from the meme-ified idea of evolution to the human suffering caused by capitalism. Imbler found the connection between these two ideas by inviting sources to “sort of just riff and think and find whatever emotional connection they might have to the work or to the creature,” Imbler says.
If a source’s reflections don’t lead to greater context, try your own: Musing about a caterpillar’s transformation and their own feelings about human growth led Imbler to produce the 2022 Harper’s Bazaar essay “My Metamorphosis.” Imbler says they also rely on their familiarity with certain fields to recognize where a story should head, letting the science lead to larger ideas. At the same time, “I try not to really force those more abstracted ideals,” Imbler says. “Not every worm story is about justice.”
Connecting the Rungs
Armed with reporting steeped in detail and knowing where their ladder should lead, writers must then craft middle rungs to connect the two. A ladder’s midsection is where writers often have to do the most explanatory writing to convey how the science sausage is made. At the same time, these middle rungs have to be sturdy enough to hold a reader’s interest and support them as they ascend to higher levels of abstraction. For these reasons, a ladder’s middle can be the hardest to assemble.
A few tricks can go a long way to help writers construct solid middle-rung material. Focus on writing a nut graf that confidently charts the course of a story. Use this roadmap to tease the big picture, so readers aren’t surprised when they reach higher rungs later in the story. At the same time, don’t reveal too much too soon, which can lead to confusion or stymie your story.
Pay careful attention to how one idea flows into the next within a ladder’s midsection. There should be a sense of logic or chronology that feels natural and compelling to the reader.
As you unspool a story’s exposition sections, which fall amongst the middle rungs, look for specific ways to draw connections between the granular details of your bottom-of-the-ladder scenes with the broader concepts at the top. For example, try using clever phrasing—even jargon!—that can advance the story but also reflect a story’s tangible roots. For a 2022 Guardian story, Paliwal wanted to explain how a mining company was able to exploit a village in central India. Researchers use different technical phrases to describe these practices, but Paliwal chose to include just one, the “social engineering of extraction.” On its own, the term is scientific jargon. But using it in the context of large corporations infiltrating local communities to manipulate them allowed Paliwal to efficiently segue from anecdotes about one Indian village to a paragraph about the broader behavior of companies acting in their own interests.
Pay careful attention to how one idea flows into the next within a ladder’s midsection. There should be a sense of logic or chronology that feels natural and compelling to the reader, so they don’t trip on a wonky rung or decide they aren’t all that interested in seeing where a ladder leads. In a 2018 Atlantic story, California-based journalist Alexis Madrigal skillfully builds each idea on top of the other to connect the use of disposable straws to deep-rooted problems in American culture. At the bottom of his ladder is a drinking straw, an easily recognizable object; the next sentence nudges readers to think of a straw as a tube, a hollow structure. Madrigal then homes in on the “defining characteristic” of the straw as the “emptiness inside it,” and connects that trait to the vacuousness of industrialism and the rise of capitalism. With this stepwise approach, Madrigal guides his readers up the ladder, gradually making the abstract concept of capitalism more relatable.
By the end of his piece, readers are left dwelling on how common objects like drinking straws can epitomize entrenched cultural problems such as wastefulness. And in subtle, maybe less-expected ways, Madrigal simultaneously paves the way for his readers to descend back down the ladder, contemplating the greater impact of their own quest for convenience. Truly effective ladders are bidirectional like this, inviting readers to carry the meaning they encounter within a story back into their everyday lives.
Jyoti Madhusoodanan is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Wired, Nature, Science, and other outlets. Her reporting on clinical research and health disparities has been supported by fellowships from the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT, the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and others. Find her on Twitter @smjyoti.