Good writers move up and down the ladder of abstraction. At the bottom are bloody knives and rosary beads, wedding rings and baseball cards. At the top are words that reach for a higher meaning, words like "freedom" and "literacy." Beware of the middle, the rungs of the ladder where bureaucracy and public policy lurk. In that place, teachers are referred to as "instructional units."
The ladder of abstraction remains one of the most useful models of thinking and writing ever invented. Popularized by S.I. Hayakawa in his 1939 book "Language in Action," the ladder has been adopted and adapted in hundreds of ways to help people think clearly and express meaning.
The easiest way to make sense of this tool is to begin with its name: The ladder of abstraction. That name contains two nouns. The first is "ladder," a specific tool you can see, hold in your hands, and climb. It involves the senses. You can do things with it. Put it against a tree to rescue your cat Voodoo. The bottom of the ladder rests on concrete language. Concrete is hard, which is why when you fall off the ladder from a high place you might break your leg.
The second word is "abstraction." You can't eat it or smell it or measure it. It is not easy to use as an example. It appeals not to the senses, but to the intellect. It is an idea that cries out for exemplification.
An old essay by John Updike begins, "We live in an era of gratuitous inventions and negative improvements." That language is general and abstract, near the top of the ladder. It provokes our thinking, but what concrete evidence leads Updike to his conclusion? The answer is in his second sentence: "Consider the beer can." To be even more specific, Updike was complaining that the invention of the pop-top ruined the aesthetic experience of drinking beer. "Pop-top" and "beer" are at the bottom of the ladder, "aesthetic experience" at the top.
We learned this language lesson in kindergarten when we played Show and Tell. When we showed the class our 1957 Mickey Mantle baseball card, we were at the bottom of the ladder. When we told the class about what a great season Mickey had in 1956, we started climbing to the top of the ladder, toward the meaning of "greatness."
Let's imagine an education reporter covering the local school board. Perhaps the topic of discussion is a new reading curriculum. The reporter is unlikely to hear conversation about little Bessie Jones, a third-grader in Mrs. Griffith's class at Gulfport Elementary, who will have to repeat the third grade because she failed the state reading test. Bessie cried when her mother showed her the test results.
Nor are you likely to hear school board members ascending to the top of the ladder to discuss "the importance of critical literacy in education, vocation, and citizenship."
The language of the school board may be stuck in the middle of the ladder: "How many instructional units will be necessary to carry out the scope and sequence of this curriculum?" an educational expert may ask. Carolyn Matalene, a great writing teacher from South Carolina, taught me that when reporters write prose the reader can neither see nor understand, they are often trapped halfway up the ladder.
Let's look at how some good writers move up and down the ladder. Consider this lead by Jonathan Bor on a heart transplant operation: "A healthy 17-year-old heart pumped the gift of life through 34-year-old Bruce Murray Friday, following a four-hour transplant operation that doctors said went without a hitch." That heart is at the bottom of the ladder — there is no other heart like it in the world — but the blood that it pumps signifies a higher meaning, "the gift of life." Such movements up the ladder create a lift-off of understanding, an effect some writers call "altitude."
One of America's great baseball writers, Thomas Boswell, wrote this essay on the aging of athletes:
The cleanup crews come at midnight, creeping into the ghostly quarter-light of empty ballparks with their slow-sweeping brooms and languorous, sluicing hoses. All season, they remove the inanimate refuse of a game. Now, in the dwindling days of September and October, they come to collect baseball souls.
Age is the sweeper, injury his broom.
Mixed among the burst beer cups and the mustard-smeared wrappers headed for the trash heap, we find old friends who are being consigned to the dust bin of baseball's history.
The abstract "inanimate refuse" soon becomes visible as "burst beer cups" and "mustard-smeared wrappers." And those cleanup crews with their very real brooms and hoses transmogrify into grim reapers in search of baseball souls.
Metaphor and simile help us to understand abstractions through comparison with concrete things. "Civilization is a stream with banks," wrote Will Durant, working both ends of the ladder. "The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry, and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river."
- Read newspaper and magazine stories that have anecdotal leads followed by "nut" paragraphs that explain what the story is about. Notice if the level of language moves from the concrete to the more abstract.
- Find some stories about bureaucracy or public policy that seem stuck in the middle of the ladder of abstraction. What kind of reporting would be necessary to climb down or up, to help the reader see and understand?
- Listen to song lyrics to hear how the language moves on the ladder of abstraction. "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose." Or "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin'." Or, "I like big butts and I cannot lie ... " Notice how concrete words and images are used in music to express abstractions such as love, hope, lust, and fear.
- Read several stories you have written and try to describe, in three words or less, what each story is "really about." Is it about friendship, loss, legacy, betrayal? Are there ways to make such meanings clearer to the reader?
- Do a Google search on "ladder of abstraction."
The first time I finished a hiring process, having settled on a stellar candidate, my boss patted me on the shoulder and said, "You know, your first time really shouldn't be this easy." I took it as a straightforward compliment to me and the person I'd found. The position had attracted a solid pool of talented people, but the candidate I'd recruited and ultimately chosen had clearly stood out above all the rest. We knew we'd made an impeccable hire.
It wasn't until years later that I realized my boss' words had a double meaning -- they were a compliment, yes, but also a piece of advice. Hiring -- often the most important decision a manager has to make -- should be hard. You want to have to make an excruciating choice from an impossibly talented pool of applicants.
So, I'm in the midst of hiring for this wonderful job you've applied for. It's an extraordinary opportunity, and it's drawn an equally extraordinary response. With the help of my colleagues on the hiring team, I've been poring over applications and talking to your fellow candidates for months. When I get a spare minute, I pull a few more resumes and cover letters off the pile to review, adding the most interesting candidates to a spreadsheet with notes and links to their work and social media profiles.
During most of my interviews, I realize two things: 1) Even though I feel like I'm moving at breakneck speed, to you this process feels mind-bendingly slow. 2) You have no idea how much I want you to rock -- how excited I get when I read a terrific cover letter, encounter a superlative clip, or find myself engrossed in an interview. Or what a heartbreak it is when you seem great on paper, but present lackluster work or a dismal demeanor.
So to make this process harder on me (in the best possible way), here are 10 things I'm wishing for from you -- and for anyone applying for a job in journalism.
Read between the lines of my job description. Yes, I know the prose is hardly gripping -- wordsmithed, as it almost always is, by committee. But there are secrets buried in our bureaucra-speak. If you see an adjective twice, pay attention, we're probably trying to tell you something. Even the boilerplate can sometimes speak volumes.
I know it's hard to discern which of the approximately 300 "essential" skills and characteristics we're most concerned with, but read them all twice. Highlight the ones that apply most strongly to you, and underline the ones that pose a bit of a problem. In your cover letter and interview, I'm going to want you to emphasize the former and give me reasons not to be concerned about the latter.
When there are multiple positions posted for the same team, look for which elements they share, and which are distinct to each. The former will tell you the qualities we're focusing on most carefully, and the latter will give you a good hint about how we think of this particular opening.
Get your vanity search in order. You know I'm Googling you, right? Of course. Before I get there, take a look at what I might see and try to make sure your best material is easily findable. (Tip: Because Google and other search engines personalize their results, it might be helpful to do the search in your browser's private or incognito mode. This should give you a good approximation of a generic search.)
If that vanity search still yields that ill-advised, gratuitously provocative screed you wrote for your college paper freshman year, it's not a disqualifier. You don't need to call up your alumni office and threaten legal action if they don't take it down. Just make sure that your own site shows up at the top of the results and showcases your best work.
Speaking of which, please have a personal site. If your cover letter and resume are solid, this is what I'm looking for next. Make it clean and easy to read, with links to your best work, and a nice, readable copy of your resume. A crisply written bio couldn't hurt either. Unless you're a stellar designer (or you're applying for a design job), no need to develop anything crazily distinctive; an about.me page or a nice, simple Wordpress.com site is perfectly fine.
My strong recommendation is that you make it easy to find your best clips. If you use a blogging engine like Wordpress, you can literally write a post titled, "My best clips on [topic you'd be covering]" and link to it somewhere prominent. (Heck, feel free to make a short URL out of it and stick that in your application materials.)
Your cover letter should tell me two stories, and both should be fascinating. First, as concisely as you can, tell me the story of how your experiences have shaped you for this position. Then, with similar economy, tell me the story of what you'll do with this position if you land it.
Remember, these are stories and you are their protagonist. Hook me with them. Don't just narrativize your resume, although the first story should probably include some of its relevant bits. You can rattle off as many superlatives about yourself as you'd like -- "I'm a first-rate storyteller with an eye for detail and a passion for telling the untold story" -- but do you really think that's how great characters are crafted? (I loved that part in the Harry Potter books where J.K. Rowling was all, "Hermione Granger is a dedicated wizard with a passion and an instinct for all kinds of magic, as well as a loyal and compassionate friend to elfkind." Oh, wait.)
And this should go without saying, but please -- please -- proofread.
There's more than one way to skin a resume. I know what a pain it would be to customize your resume for each job, so I have no complaints with a reasonably generic resume format. But do make sure to emphasize the aspects of your experience most suited to the jobs you're applying for. Hierarchy in a resume is all-important; the stuff you want me to notice most should go at the top.
If you're fresh out of school and your academic accomplishments are your calling card, lead with them. If you've been a longtime freelancer for a variety of high-quality news outlets, the names of the organizations may be most important to emphasize. If you've steadily moved up in seniority from job to job and held some impressive positions, then foreground your titles and make that progression stand out.
Remember: the more of your background you include, the less I'm likely to remember. A comprehensive C.V. is unnecessary. Foreground your five most impressive credentials, and tuck the rest into aftermatter, or excise it altogether.
By the way, the Web software we use for job applications and hiring tends to render resumes unrecognizable. So unless you know for certain that the system is going to deliver the resume to me with formatting intact, make sure that it looks wonderful in a plain text editor (like Notepad on Windows or TextWrangler on Mac). If you have the option of both uploading a PDF and submitting a separate plain text file, do both.
Even if I'm not following you on social media, assume I am. You probably don't work for my organization yet, so you're not covered by our social media guidelines. But I'll be trying to assess from your feed whether you could accommodate them. So try not to go too far out of bounds.
Also, if you signed up for a Twitter account a few days before applying because our job description asked for social media skills, I can probably tell. Newbie Twitter feeds are almost unmistakeable. Here's a secret: As much as I'd love to see your witty, informative stream of 140-character bursts of insight, I can also very much respect folks who listen more than they talk on Twitter. If you don't say much yourself, but are following an interesting bunch of people (and do interact when appropriate), that's perfectly fine in my book. If you're new to a social media community, there is no shame in signing up and listening. I'll be thrilled if you demonstrate to me that you understand the dynamics of the community, even if you haven't shared much yet yourself.
Don't hesitate to get one of our mutual colleagues to recommend you to me. I value a good recommendation; it's one more piece of information I can draw on in my evaluation of your work. But the mere fact that you and I know someone in common doesn't really help me out at all.
The best recommendations have a few qualities in common: 1) They come from someone with a genuine, first-person sense of how you work. 2) They come from someone with a decent understanding of our aims for the position. 3) They don't just tell me that you're great, they tell me why and how.
A little follow-up at any point in this process doesn't hurt. A lot might. If you haven't heard from us a month after you've applied, there's no harm in sending an email to check up on where we are in the process. And after an interview or test, a gracious follow-up note is always appreciated, especially if you note some ideas that struck you afterward. If we close the position and you still haven't heard from us, again, feel free to write.
Beyond those few occasions, be gentle. There's probably an optimum level of persistence that can slightly help your prospects or speed the process along, but it's unlikely to make a significant difference in our decision.
The very best interviews feel like great conversations. This may be one of my quirks as an interviewer, but I've found this to be true both as an interviewer and as an interviewee. Interviews often start out as interrogations -- a back-and-forth series of questions and answers. But great interviews don't tend to end that way. With the interview, I'm not merely trying to unlock the bits of knowledge in your head, and I'm certainly not trying to see how well you anticipate the answers locked in my head. I am trying to assess how you think, what you're passionate about, how we gel as colleagues.
If I veer away from asking questions and start riffing off your ideas or telling stories of my own, don't wait for the interrogation to resume -- join in. Your questions, reactions, asides, brow-furrowed musings and rejoinders are all just as interesting to me as your answers, and if I'm trying to elicit them, it's a good sign.
Every hiring manager is different. At the risk of negating everything I just wrote, I'll be honest: Nothing in this post is universal. You're probably going to encounter hiring managers who don't Google anyone, couldn't care less about your personal site or Twitter stream, disregard recommendations, hate follow up and don't truck with idle chit-chat in interviews. (I'd love to see perspectives from other hiring managers in the comments section of this post.)
The other members of my hiring team probably have different approaches and interests. If you have an interview with someone else on my team, feel free to ask what I can share with you about them; I want you to impress them too.
Again, when I wish you the very best of luck, I mean it sincerely.