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How can we write to better communicate ideas?

Date: 2020-08-15

This article was originally written as a 15 minute writing exercise. I’ve since edited it properly, improved some points, and integrated feedback Elliot Temple gave in my tutorial on 14th August 2020.

The original draft is in my “homework” notes for that tutorial. (For comparison, the original draft was ~650 words and this one is ~1200)

When we want to better communicate ideas, we’re saying we want our ideas to be understood by our readers. For an audience to understand your ideas, they need to end up with a fairly good idea of the structure and content. A general method is to build up the main idea using simple or pre-existing ideas. These ideas should either be known already, or be simple enough to explain as you go without disrupting your main idea. If you constrain your writing in this way, your readers will (mostly) follow and understand what you write. It’s impossible to perfectly communicate an idea — especially in a short article — so don’t stress too much about getting things perfect. You might think you already do all this, but you probably have room to improve. So, what techniques should you use and what patterns should you change?

First, you should consider — at a high level — how you’re going to structure the main idea in terms of smaller ideas. When you express ideas as words, you can write the words in a regular and consistent way that matches what people expect. They expect you to introduce new ideas as you go. They expect you to build up to the main idea. People don’t expect you to say everything important in the first sentence or paragraph and then have lots of nitty-gritty details in the rest of the article. If the first paragraph is too confusing they probably won’t even read the rest. After all, if they didn’t understand the first bit, why should they expect to understand the rest?

You should consider what your audience already knows — it’s good to give your audience the credit they deserve. No one likes reading an article full of things they already know. They’re reading it for new ideas. This doesn’t mean you should always avoid things they already know; mentioning them is useful for establishing common ground with your readers. This common ground is a standard foundation for you and the audience to build the idea from. But if you are too simple or repetitive they’ll get bored. Similarly, if you presume too much they will get lost — and maybe angry, in some cases. The best part (for you, the author) is that you don’t have to write much about the common ground; it makes the act of writing easier! So it’s important to know what your audience knows, and write something that’s useful to them.

You should also not be too concerned with what you put down initially, editing and revising are tools you should use. We all make mistakes while writing, but that’s okay — what matters is that we can fix them. Instead of worrying about mistakes, it’s better to keep writing — to maintain flow. This is especially important if you want to write fast. It’s usually better to leave editing to the end because it can be very distracting to do it while you’re writing. The main thing is keep ideas coming, and keep building them up incrementally. If you do this you’ll quickly have hundreds of words that are easy to understand!

You should make sure everything you write has a purpose and aligns with your goals. Your goals are the reasons for writing the article in the first place; the article’s purpose is what it’s meant to do. For example, this article has three goals: practice writing, be a useful reference, and help other people point out things I missed or mistakes I made. The purpose of this article is to accurately communicate the most important things about writing clearly and effectively. If you’re unsure of including something when writing or editing, you can ask yourself: “Is including this idea helping me realise my goals? How does this word or sentence contribute to the purpose of what I’m writing? Does it give the reader a better idea of what I mean, or does it get in the way?” If you can answer these questions, consider if it’s too much detail (that would be boring); if you can’t… taking that bit out is probably a good idea. Keeping things short and tight is good; readers like that.

Sometimes you might want to add a joke, be careful doing this. Jokes can be fun but they can also be dangerous. Jokes rarely make our ideas clearer, and often make things more confusing, not less. If you distract your audience they’re not paying attention to your ideas. Jokes might make us feel smarter, or maybe we hope they make the audience think we’re smarter, but they rarely help in communicating you ideas. (Not to mention: doing things to feel smarter, or so other people think we’re smarter, is a bad reason to do something.) If you add a joke so that your readers like you more, that’s pandering. Jokes don’t typically contribute to the purpose of the article, so it’s best to leave them out if you’re unsure.

While you’re doing all this, remember your goals and that writing can be fun! Don’t get too caught up in the idea of being a good writer or something — it’s too easy to be hard on yourself and overly critical. Instead, remember that you’re writing for a reason, like telling people the ideas you have, or explaining their ideas back to them to check your understanding. Whatever the case may be, remember that if you have fun writing it will be easier to practice and get better. It’s fun to share ideas! Your writing will improve faster if you study some other skills too, like grammar and brainstorming. Nothing is wrong with being a good writer, but there is a problem with aiming for it without other goals.

There are more advanced techniques you can use too (try reading only the first sentence of each paragraph in this article). One method is choosing where key ideas (and optional ideas) fit in a sentence. Ideas that are part of the subject or object of a sentence are the easiest to understand. When you put ideas there, you’re signalling to the reader that they’re the most important part of the sentence. Here’s an example of what not to do: “It’s sadly all too easy to mistakenly find ourselves at the end of sentences after too many prepositions and adverbs feeling stuck and (out of desperation!) finally putting down the main idea”. That last sentence was about finding ourselves somewhere rather than the diminishment of ideas (which was the actual point). Ideas in modifiers (adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, etc) are less important to the sentence than the subject, object or complement, and the primary verb. Similarly, turning a verb into a gerund, infinitive, or participle will diminish the meaning, too (though you could be tricky to get around this, but the result is often confusing). Being capable of these more advanced techniques is one of the motivations to learn some of the other skills I mentioned earlier, like grammar. I’ll need more practice before I can write a good article about these sorts of techniques, though.

Good luck!

If you’d like more to read about writing, here are some posts by Elliot Temple. He’s a better writer than I am and knows more about the topic.

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