Simplifying complex ideas becomes easier when you follow the 5 principles set out in this article.
This article discusses the following 5 principles:
Start with the right question
Rewrite to bring clarity
How to simplify the complex
Let’s not pussyfoot around it.
We all get stuck sometimes. We think we know what to write. But when we open a Word doc, the words don’t flow.
We try to blame it on writer’s block.
Our muse has left us. Today we don’t feel inspired.
But the hard truth is this …
We’re still confused about what we want to communicate. We wrestle with complexity. We don’t know the essence of our unwieldy idea.
A few simple principles can help you distill the essence of your message, and communicate with power and clarity.
Want to know how?
1. Start with the right question
Ever feel like an idea is too multi-faceted with threads of thoughts moving in all directions?
And you can’t figure out how to weave all these ideas together into one coherent piece of content?
Step back and isolate one simple question.
In their book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird suggest:
Consider a subject you wish to understand, and clear the clutter until you have isolated one essential ingredient. Each complicated issue has several possible core ideas. You are not seeking “the” essential idea; you are seeking just one—consider a subject and pare it down to one theme.
Let’s say you want to write a post about how to build a thriving business online. This question is complex and unwieldy.
Firstly, what type of online business are we talking about? Promoting a freelance writing business online is different from building a Software-as-a-Service business.
Secondly, when you want to know about building an online business, do you want to learn more about business processes or marketing tactics or about picking the right idea?
So, instead of trying to answer all ideas in one go, start with one simple question. Write about how to generate business ideas, how to do a quick feasibility study, or how to pick one business idea.
To simplify your ideas, simplify your question first.
2. Reduce clutter
The principle of cutting away the clutter to clarify an idea sounds straightforward.
But what is clutter?
When is nuance helpful and when does nuance become clutter?
Imagine a remote control with only an on/off button. It’s simple, but not very useful, is it? To add more functionality, you need more buttons, so complexity increases.
But how many buttons does a remote control need?
The answer depends on the user’s wishes and what product he wants to control.
In his book The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda describes this as the balance between “How simple can you make it?” and “How simple does it have to be?”
A similar tension exists in writing. How simple can you make your message? When have you cleared so much clutter that your content becomes meaningless?
To understand when nuance becomes clutter, think about your reader. What information is essential so he can understand your ideas and follow your advice?
3. Rewrite to bring clarity
Writing simply requires taking a step back and then looking at your content again with fresh eyes. What’s the aim of your content? And how can you simplify your writing to achieve that aim?
Simplicity is hard to achieve.
Shane Parrish suggests that even Charles Darwin found it hard to express himself clearly and concisely. Darwin wrote down his ideas quickly, and then went back to them again and again. A reiterative revision process.
When you give your ideas time to blossom, you give yourself an opportunity to make your writing clearer. So write your content over several days.
And don’t stop writing after you’ve answered one question. Revisit topics to deepen your understanding. Find an even simpler question or branch out to follow different threads of thought.
You can understand anything better than you currently do.
~ Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird
One blog post has the perfect length to answer one simple question.
But what if your readers ask complex questions? And what if you want to help them make sense of complexity?
This is where organization comes in.
Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
~ John Maeda
Let’s think about a book. Each chapter of a book answers one simple question. Together, these chapters answer a bigger question, like this:
You can apply a similar principle to your blog.
First, create a series of blog posts answering the simple questions. Then, create a page or blog post as a collection of these questions—show how you break down a complex question into smaller questions. Such content is often called cornerstone content.
My blog post about how to improve your writing skills is an example of cornerstone content. First, it breaks down the question of improving writing skills into:
- Which writing techniques do you need to learn?
- What writing habits can we nurture?
- How can we write with substance?
- Where do we find inspiration to keep improving our writing?
Next, it breaks each of these questions down into simpler questions. For instance, the question about writing techniques includes:
- What’s a good sentence?
- How do you choose words?
- How do you make your writing flow smoothly?
- How do you use metaphors?
- How do you write mini-stories?
Once you’ve answered the simple questions, answering a big question becomes easier. A matter of organization.
5. Draw pictures
When I wrestle with an unwieldy topic, I start scribbling.
Even writing down a few words and drawing arrows can help clarify my thoughts.
Stop thinking of drawing as an artistic process. Drawing is a thinking process.
~ Dan Roam
How to communicate with power and clarity
Learning to write well means learning to think well.
And that means re-learning how to ask questions.
Remember when you were a kid, and kept asking questions?
Look at the world again with fresh eyes. Be a child again. Learn to be comfortable with not knowing answers, and you’ll discover new lessons and fresh ideas.
Follow your curiosity.
That’s how you learn more and enrich your life.
PS Thank you to Kathy Keats for inspiring this post.
Recommended reading on writing strategies:
A brilliant example of explanatory writing: A story about whales
How to simplify your writing: A little-known practice
How to write like Hemingway
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