Do you ever find yourself struggling to understand a text?
After reading a text a few times, you may find yourself scratching your head. Your brain is hurting.
What is the author trying to communicate??!!??
When we’re struggling to understand a text, it’s easy to blame ourselves. Are we not smart enough?
But here’s the more important question …
Why didn’t the writer communicate more clearly? A good writer makes their content easy to understand.
Want to know how?
A delightful example of simple writing
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a bird?
What do birds see, hear, and smell? Why can owls turn their heads around? How can flamingos balance on one leg? How do birds survive hurricanes?
I recently read the book What It’s Like to Be a Bird by David Allen Sibley. It’s a delightful book that explains in simple language what it’s like to be a bird.
Here’s an example:
Birds’ bodies are well insulated, but they have no insulation on their legs and feet, which are often exposed to extreme cold. Birds’ feet can handle being cold, and they don’t need much blood flow because they have very little muscle tissue (…). The bigger problem is that any blood that does go to the feet comes back into the body cold—but birds’ systems have a solution for that. A process called countercurrent circulation is used to transfer heat and warm up the blood coming back into the body. The major veins and arteries in the legs split into multiple smaller blood vessels at the top of each leg, intertwining to allow more heat to transfer from the warm outgoing blood to the cold incoming blood. This system is so efficient that as much as 85 percent of the outgoing blood’s heat is transferred to the incoming blood.
That’s almost effortless to read, isn’t it?
The writing is simple but not simplistic; it’s delightful. The book taught me a lot about birds and made me curious to learn more. Isn’t that fab?
Why common writing advice is wrong
The common advice on simple writing is to use short sentences and everyday words.
That advice is only half of the truth.
Let me explain …
First, it’s not true that you can’t use long sentences. Readability is about average sentence length. So, it’s okay to mix short and long sentences to create a pleasant rhythm—as long as the average sentence length is low.
For instance, the penultimate sentence in the paragraph by Sibley that I quoted above contains 37 words. That’s long. But that one long sentence doesn’t make the paragraph hard to read. You might not even have noticed that that sentence was so long.
Secondly, what about using everyday words?
Sibley doesn’t shy away from using difficult phrases in his book, such as countercurrent circulation, cryptically colored, and binocular vision. However, when he uses such phrases, he explains them clearly.
If there’s a simpler word you can use, go ahead, do so. But you can’t always eliminate difficult terms, especially when explaining complicated concepts. The key is to introduce complicated words gently (hook a reader first!) and explain them.
Last but not least, common advice to writing simply misses the essential key: Break down a difficult concept and explain it step by step—sentence by sentence—while keeping readers engaged. That’s what Sibley does so expertly.
Shall I show you how?
How to write simply
In the paragraph quoted before, Sibley explains the concept of countercurrent circulation and why it helps keep birds warm.
But he doesn’t start with the term countercurrent circulation as that might put readers off. Instead, he hooks his reader by highlighting the problem that a bird’s legs and feet are not insulated:
Birds’ bodies are well insulated, but they have no insulation on their legs and feet, which are often exposed to extreme cold.
The first sentence of this paragraph hooks readers by highlighting a problem, making readers wonder, How do you solve that? And then they want to know more.
But problems aren’t always straightforward. Sibley explains that cold feet aren’t the real problem:
Birds’ feet can handle being cold, and they don’t need much blood flow because they have very little muscle tissue.
So, what’s the real problem? Sibley explains:
The bigger problem is that any blood that does go to the feet comes back into the body cold—but birds’ systems have a solution for that.
The 3 sentences above explain the problem. Each sentence makes you want to read the next, and now you want to know what the bird’s solution is to the cold blood running back to its body, right?
First, Sibley explains the general principle of countercurrent circulation:
A process called countercurrent circulation is used to transfer heat and warm up the blood coming back into the body.
That sounds interesting but how does that transfer of heat work? Sibley explains the solution in a more detail:
The major veins and arteries in the legs split into multiple smaller blood vessels at the top of each leg, intertwining to allow more heat to transfer from the warm outgoing blood to the cold incoming blood.
That’s the 37-word sentence. Despite its length, the sentence is easy to read because it starts with the core of the sentence: The subject (the major veins and arteries in the legs) and verb (split into).
Lastly, Sibley ends with a clincher sentence, summarizing the impact of countercurrent circulation:
This system is so efficient that as much as 85 percent of the outgoing blood’s heat is transferred to the incoming blood.
When writing a paragraph to explain a concept such as countercurrent circulation, we’re often tempted to start with the difficult term and explain it. But note how Sibley only introduces this term in the 4th sentence of this paragraph.
He hooks us first by explaining the problem so we’re eager to learn the solution. When the more difficult word arrives, we’re already hooked and keep reading on.
Sibley explains the concept of countercurrent circulation tiny step by tiny step. Each sentence explains a little more. Each sentence follows logically on the previous sentence and makes us want to read the next, too.
The writing is engaging and simple but not simplistic.
Simplistic writing is overly simplified
As Merriam-Webster’s suggests, simplistic means “treating a problem or subject with false simplicity by omitting or ignoring complicating factors or details.”
That definition is a little tricky. When is simplicity false? When is it okay to omit a detail and when is that not okay?
As writers, we have to choose what’s essential to communicate.
For instance, Sibley doesn’t explain the details of a bird’s anatomy. He only selects the details that help answer his key question: How do birds keep warm when their feet are cold?
Knowing which questions you want to answer helps to write more clearly.
Bad writers try to impress readers with their knowledge. They share too many unnecessary details. Or worse, they treat readers as if they’re stupid. A condescending tone rattles through their writing.
Good writers like Sibley treat readers with respect. They assume readers are smart and curious (that’s why their tone is never condescending) but they also assume readers know nothing (that’s why they work hard to write so clearly).
Good writers write simply
You may have heard of Sibley’s guides for birds in Northern America. He doesn’t just write, he illustrates those guides, too.
He writes about drawing in black ink:
It’s not too different from pencil drawing, since it involves a single color in lines on white paper, but since the lines can only be black it requires even further simplification.
It strikes me that Sibley applies a similar technique to his writing. He simplifies his writing until he communicates what’s essential only.
Colorful flourishes are unnecessary to share his joy and knowledge.
The clarity of his words makes his writing shine.
Book mentioned in this post:
- What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing–What Birds Are Doing, and Why by David Allen Sibley
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