Abstract concepts encapsulate many ideas into one word. Shoes and boots become footwear. The set of politicians includes local mayors as well as heads of state. Mothers and fathers are, more generally, parents.
Abstractions are absolutely essential for achieving any of the following goals with your writing:
- Making conclusions or inferences based on varied evidence
- Demonstrating mastery of complex topics (academic writing)
- Establishing guidelines for systems or processes
In the workplace, abstract concepts help writers and readers alike deal with complexity by chunking many ideas or cases into manageable pieces.
- Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn are social media.
- People who use a piece of software, whether administrators, CEOs, salespeople or accountants, roll up into users.
Businesses identities are based on abstractions. The Salesforce home page declares it’s the “#1 CRM solution for small business” – scoring big with three abstractions: CRM, solution, and small business. Most people know understand two out of three.
Too much of a good thing can be tedious, boring, or even incomprehensible. Relying on abstractions can lead to unintended consequences:
The reader gets lost. Although you, the writer, understand exactly what you mean by the words you choose, your reader may not. Business writers often suffer from the Curse of Knowledge – the inability to imagine that someone else doesn’t know the things we know. For example, a small business owner landing on the Salesforce page might not know what CRM means, and will have to figure it out through other contextual clues.
People get bored. The reader’s brain has to process each abstraction. Even if they can work out what you’re saying, people tire of the effort and may tune you out.
The writing sounds stiff and impersonal. Unless your brand style guide says, “We are boring, stodgy, and unfriendly,” think carefully about relying on abstractions in your business communications.
Think in Abstractions, but Write With Detail
As we become conversant with a subject area, we start thinking using the terminology and abstractions of the field. Industry-specific terms become old friends that help us get more done and communicate with each other quickly.
Because we often write as we think, those same patterns turn up in our emails, web pages, help screens, and marketing collateral. Abstract thinking explains the proliferation of industry terminology and awkward writing in the business world.
There is a better way.
Our “thinking voice” doesn’t have to be the same as our writing voice. That’s what revision is for.
Adept fiction writers understand the importance of the telling detail. The fiction author searches for the specific details or images that allow readers to construct the scene or setting in their own minds.
You can do the same thing with your nonfiction or business writing.
3 Steps to Add Detail and Texture
If you find yourself thinking and writing with abstract concepts, you’ll have hunt them down with intention during the revision process. Use the following steps: locate, evaluate, and illustrate.
First, you have to spot the unnecessary abstractions.
Look for words ending in –tion, or nouns describing entire categories.
Make a list of the buzzwords and abstractions that are common in your industry – they’re often a great place to start.
Pay particular attention to abstract concepts that involve people, as they contribute to an impersonal tone and style. Terms like user, employee, and management can feel dehumanizing.
Having found the target words, decide if they should stay or go. Readers expect some generalization, but consider taking action if one of the following is true:
- Some readers may not understand the term.
- The writing is boring.
Sometimes you can replace an abstraction with a specific case without losing any meaning.
For example, if you’re writing something for employees to read, consider replacing the employee with you. If you’re using the word channels but really mean Facebook and Twitter, write Facebook and Twitter.
When the abstractions are necessary, can you make them come to life by providing an illustrative example or story?
For example, I was leafing through an EPA document about Community Culture and the Environment. As an example of community involvement, the document offers stories of volunteers within a city monitoring leaks of raw sewage into local streams. Raw sewage – that’s a topic that grabs your attention as a reader.
Roy Peter Clark, author of the wonderful book Writing Tools, suggests that you “climb up and down the ladder of abstractions.” If you start at the top of the ladder, climb down to the details.
Experiment with using clarifying examples to liven up the writing.
Finding the Telling Detail
To defeat the Curse of Knowledge, you have to get outside your own head.
Try using this freewriting exercise to discover details or examples that would strike a chord.
- Open up a file about the topic, titled “Freewriting” or “Notes.”
- Create an imaginary conversation with someone who might be interested but has no knowledge of your area – a grandparent or a teenager. In the business context, consider a prospective customer who is new to the job and has little knowledge of the subject.
- Have the imaginary person ask as many questions as you can think of, and answer them patiently. Invent different ways of answering them. Do this for a good 10-15 minutes, so you get past the most obvious questions and dig deeper.
This exercise can help you discover assumptions you’re making and identify the concepts that might trip up a reader. It’s also a great way to explore examples and details.
For other posts related to writing in the workplace, see: