On Simplicity: How We Write.

I enjoy keeping things simple and making existing complex things simple. This reflects my work at Blue. We strive to make teamwork simple for thousands of organizations. But this is principle goes deeper than designing products or experiences.

Keeping things simple starts with the use of language. Being able to express ideas and facts simply, using everyday language. This is something that many people struggle to do, especially highly-paid consultants.

This is for two key reasons:

  1. Writing long and complex documents is a showcase of expertise and can justify high fees. Whether any ideas or strategies are understandable and implemented is of secondary importance.
  2. Complexity can mask incompetence. If you don’t know what to say, saying it in 19 pages of long-form text is a great way to hide this fact.

So, how do we ensure that when we communicate we are understandable?

Well, start by keeping things short. This applies to all levels including using short words, sentences, and paragraphs. This even applies to your writing as a whole! Do you need 2,000 words or can you get your message across in 500 words?

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.

Mark Twain

This relates to the concept of information density. This is the amount of useful information in a certain amount of words. The more useful information with fewer words used, the higher the information density.

The higher the information density, the better. As with anything, this can be taken to extremes where things suffer. A typical mistake is to assume that the audience who is reading has the same context that you have. If you are writing for experts, then this is a fine assumption to make. If you are writing for the general public or anyone who is not a subject-matter expert, then think! You may want to double-check your assumptions on their pre-existing knowledge.

The next point is that clear writing is plain writing. While it is fun and interesting to learn new words, using them may have the opposite intended effect. When we want to be precise, we can use complex vocabulary. But, if you got too far, you actually reduce the amount of precision in your text. Yes, each word is very specific and correct, but the overarching meaning of your text is lost.

It is better to write plainly and ensure that your readers can follow your point than to write in a complex manner. You may sound less smart, but at least you don’t lose everyone along the way. This means that your communication can actually have a real impact and add value to your readers.

As this is one of my favorite topics, you’ll find me writing a lot more on how to keep things simple.

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