3 Strategies for Writing about Complex Subjects


The basic principle for writing about complex subjects is to do the work necessary so that the reader can understand you easily. Of course, your first task is to make sure you understand your own ideas. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” With this in mind, here are three strategies to help you write clearly about complex ideas, each taken from 300 Days of Better Writing by David Bowman. 

Day 33: Use the simplest correct words.

Using big words makes you seem smart. They make your reader think, “Wow, this writer really knows a lot!” Right? Probably not.

Using words that are outside of your readers’ common vocabulary may have three effects, all negative. First, they reduce the readers understanding of what you are trying to communicate. Second, they distract the reader from what you are trying to communicate and force the reader to concentrate on word meaning. Third, they can give the impression that you are trying to impress the reader, which will make you seem pretentious. If your goals are communicating clearly and improving your credibility, use the simplest correct words.

One note about the “correct” word: While you are choosing simple words that mean what you want to say, you also need to consider how readers will respond to them. As such, you need to think about the tone you wish to create.

Day 54: Write simply.

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way.
(Mark Twain)

I was once asked whether our editing strategies are appropriate for creative writing or if they are only appropriate for business writing and other formal writing contexts. The answer, of course, is “Yes, they are appropriate for creative writing.” Many of these strategies echo Mark Twain’s comment above, and few people would doubt his ability to write good fiction.

When you are imparting information, whether in a technical document or a narrative document (such as a fiction novel), you need to consider how to impart that information effectively. Styles are different, as are the readers, but writing simply and clearly is necessary to accomplish the purpose for which you are writing.

Day 170: When communication is difficult, write simply.

The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.
(Joseph Priestley)

When we write, our goal is communication. We have something that we want the reader to understand. If we write in a complicated manner, we reduce the possibility that the reader will understand.

One major issue that we address in clients’ documents is unnecessary complexity. Many writers try to put too much information in one sentence, or they state their ideas in a convoluted manner. Our task, then, is to simplify what they write. This includes reordering the phrases, removing unnecessary words, breaking sentences into shorter sentences, and choosing single words to replace multiple words.

Clear, simple writing does not mean simplifying the message. It means writing in a manner that allows the reader to understand without difficulty. It means communicating effectively.

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