It's a shell

9 tips to simplify your message in 2021

Try some of these quick ideas for making your messages easier for more people to understand. By David Walker.

Phone your uncle

Or your aunt. Read them your short statement and ask them to explain it back to you. If they can't explain it back, keep working on simplifying it.

Why your uncle, or aunt? Because your mum and dad so heavily influenced your communication style. They are now too likely to understand what you've written, even if it has problems for a broader audience. Aunts and uncles won't be so used to your style – but they will have grown used to putting up with the idiosyncracies of their sister's crazy kid.)

Write a pretend tweet

Here's an alternative to phoning relatives: pretend to tweet the message. Few things clarify your message more than choosing what to say in just 280 characters.

When you have one tweet written, you can start to think about what your second and third tweets would be.

(The important things with both of these techniques is this: while we are buried in the material, most people will at best take one thing away from it. A few people will take two or three things. That's all.)

Write like you talk

People tend to understand the rythyms of spoken language better than those of written language. So when it doubt, we should generally make our writing sound more like our speech – a cleaned-up and even polished version of our speech, but speech nevertheless.

This is harder than it sounds, because most people instinctively use a much more formal mode when they write. That's a habit many of us learned in school or university, and now we need to unlearn it.

Omit needless words

This is the enduringly famous rule 13 from William Strunk and E.B. White's classic The Elements Of Style. As they wrote:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts." 

This is one of the easier rules to implement. A good editor can work their way through a document, tightening as they go. Clients are often startled by how much they can lift an article's impact simply by cutting the pieces that don't add any value.

Work harder when it's maths

The "write like you talk" rule applies even more strongly when our writing contains maths. The written formal language of mathematics presumes that people are motivated to follow it carefully. But readers almost never behave this way in real life. So when we write about maths, we should take extra care to explain how the numbers are changing, and the effect that this has. In front of non-mathematical audiences, numbers almost never speak for themselves. 

Don't kid yourself with fancy words

Paul Graham heads YCombinator, the early stage startup funder that backed Reddit, AirBnB, DropBox and many more. He also writes brilliantly about the act of writing. 

This rule is an important elaboration on Strunk and White's famous command. Graham argues that "complex sentences and fancy words" do something even worse than losing an audience. They "give you, the writer, the false impression that you're saying more than you actually are". One benefit of a good edit is that it can clarify what are the strongest and weakest elements of an argument.

Convince yourself that your ideas desperately need clear communication

Complex ideas have an unusual characteristic, one that should worry anyone in the business of communicating them. Compared to most of the ideas we see, complex ideas are hard to understand. That's especially true when they're new.

And if they're already hard to understand, we should be desperate to avoid using language that makes readers stop concentrating on them. Paul Graham makes this point well: "The harder the ideas you're talking about, the less you can afford to let language get in the way." 

Listen to how experts talk to each other

Most experts are capable of conversing about their chosen topic in quite simple language. As Paul Graham puts it:

"You don't need complex sentences to express complex ideas. When specialists in some abstruse topic talk to one another about ideas in their field, they don't use sentences any more complex than they do when talking about what to have for lunch. They use different words, certainly. But even those they use no more than necessary. And in my experience, the harder the subject, the more informally experts speak."

(In fields where the language is notoriously imprecise, such as philosophy, conversations between experts tend to go a painfully short distance before devolving into discussions about what particular terms mean.) 

Read Paul Graham

Paul Graham writes better than almost anyone else on the planet on the topic of writing about ideas. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Graham has thought more usefully about this topic than everyone else, and that his writing is just a powerful side-effect of that thinking. That's why Graham is quoted more than anyone else in this article.

His collected essays are at paulgraham.com. Among his best:

Once you start looking for people with good ideas about communicating ideas, you may be struck by how few of them exist. It's a puzzle.

Coda: How rework works

The original title for this page was "15 tips for simplifying your message".

When we had the first eight, we decided we didn't need to wait for the next seven before releasing it. So it became "8 tips for simplifying your message".

Shorter is almost always better. So it became "8 tips to simplify your message".

Then we added an obvious extra rule ("omit needless words") to get "9 tips to simplify your message".

Evidence that the current year adds to a page's Google ranking led us to make it "9 tips to simplify your message in 2021". (This year name is actually programmed to update each New Year's day.)

This is how editing goes in 2021 ...