Respect Your Audience by Dumbing Down
Good writing is clear writing.
A mistake common to authors is the idea that complicated ideas require complicated presentation.
That is true in part; there is a limitation on bandwidth in the written word. A writer needs to go into depth to communicate complex topics. But there is a difference between depth and difficulty.
Writers should avoid excess noise. I’m not the best at this, but I’ve got a few rules that I like.
1. Organize Relentlessly
Take advantage of visual tools. I don’t like intra-text methods like using bold or italic fonts as much as formatting tools.
Bullet points and numbered lists are great for this. Section headings work wonders. People overlook these methods because they aren’t popular in English classes, but they’re perfect tools.
On a basic level, everything should be in its place. Stray elements can create issues. Figuring out a basic organization scheme makes this trivial. I use a bubble method to visualize my work. Outlining and mind-mapping are other popular methods.
You can organize mentally if you have enough practice. Be sure to check that things are where they should be after you finish a first draft in this case.
On an advanced level, readers should know what you’re doing. Clear statements of intent are important. These get called a variety of things: thesis statement, topic sentence, introduction, and so forth. Whatever you call them, each of these tools serves to prepare your audience.
That’s good organization.
2. Kill Your Darlings
I love complicated sentences. I love rabbit-hole journeys into trivia. I love efficient jargon. I love idiosyncrasies in writers’ work.
These are all anathema to clear communication.
They aren’t verboten, per se. They’re just wrong for the communication side of things. They’re relics of conversational talking styles, and they can serve a purpose to put some voice in an otherwise dry text.
Too many pieces of flair detract from the point. Many writers spend too much time on putting “polish” on every sentence. Show off once in a while, but simplicity is king.
3. Mind Your Grammar
Errors are, well, errors.
You don’t need perfect grammar. Being nit-picky about rules can be as bad as ignoring them altogether. Old-school publishers and journalists may have a style guide to use, but beyond that I suggest simplicity.
Spelling is important, properly defined words are important. Syntax, word order, and punctuation are important.
Less important: to never split infinitives or end a sentence with a preposition.
Great grammar is a set of rules people play by. If the rules are esoteric and inane, ignore them. That’s not the same as rules people don’t think about, like adjective order. But don’t worry about starting a sentence with a conjunction so long as you aren’t littering your text with fragments and run-on sentences. Little things like determiners have an outsize impact.
Things like the Oxford comma are dogma. They may be correct dogma, and I will get into a 3 AM knife-fight over the necessity of the Oxford comma, but they are still less important than mission-critical elements.
Many of the rules taught in English class forbid novice mistakes. Know your skill level and follow the rules you need to. Then up your game and move to the next skill level. Lather, rinse, repeat.
4. Words are Choices
Words are choices.
Repetition. It sticks with people.
How many adverbs do you need?
Which descriptions and terms have both the denotation–literal meaning–and connotation–gut feel association–that you want?
Repetition is a useful tool to build memory. Cognitive scientists argue about exactly how much and how often, but it only hurts if it bores your reader.
You can often say the same thing more than once if you word it differently. Your audience will typically tolerate it. Just don’t do it too much.
It’s okay to use rare words. But use them well. Consider using an in-line definition, like an appositive, and lay the ground with context clues.
Think of sound, flow, and meaning. Most people vocalize while they read. Some sound schemes work well, like alliteration, and others may have an opposite effect. Reading aloud for awkwardness is a time-honored tradition for good reason.
Sentences are choices, too.
Every clause you add can either dilute or amplify your meaning. Usually they dilute. Long sentences hold more information, unless a writer makes a hash of them. Short sentences are clear.
They’re also more interesting in a way that’s hard to describe.
Paragraphs are also choices.
Parallelism is a method that lets you use similar techniques in different places to draw an association. There are so many ways to pull it off that it’s not worth listing them. It can also work in the inverse. The most obvious example is a list with unlike members, which is very difficult to process.
Dumb down your text. It’s polite.
Nobody elevates their audience by wrapping their work in obscurantism. It is the realm of charlatans and fools. There is an exception for creative writers, who can use allusion and imagery to great effect.
But even then it fails more often than it succeeds. For every T. S. Eliot there are hundreds of abject failures who flew too close to the sun.
If you have something important to say, say it. Don’t beat around the bush and build up word-count like an undergrad on his fourth energy drink.
Be direct. Be bold. Be polite.