Over the next few months, Poynter will publish shortened versions of 21 chapters of the book “Help! for Writers,” by Roy Peter Clark. Published by Little, Brown, the book lists common problems writers face and offers 10 solutions for each of the problems.
Problem #12: How to make hard facts easy reading
1. Translate jargon for the reader.
A champion of jargon-less language was Robert Gunning, who coached writers from many different businesses on how to take the fog out of their prose. A great first step, argued Gunning, was to simplify words and phrases that may have been inflated to create the impression that the document is more highfalutin than it is. Through his filter, accumulate becomes gather; ameliorate becomes improve; approximately becomes about; assistance becomes aid. And those are just the A’s! This works for jargon too, so that instructional units becomes lessons.
2. Use as few numbers as possible and place them in context.
If you must use numbers, limit them. If possible, use just one number. If more are required, spread them out so they don’t bump into one another. I’ve encountered a different strategy: that you should group key numbers so that the reader can deal with them and move on. When I see a block of numbers, I’m inclined to skip them, assuming that the significance of those numbers will be explained down in the story.
3. Lift the heaviest information into a chart or graph.
There is a way to make numbers more pictorial and comprehensible: Draw a picture. Mario Garcia, one of the world’s most influential media designers, has preached to writers and editors the value of “lifting the heavy cargo of the story” out of the text and into a visual element. This can be done with a chart, graph, map, or dozens of other standard strategies of visual expression.
4. Slow down the pace of information.
Never pack information into sentences or paragraphs, a strategy sometimes derided as “suitcasing.” If your suitcase is over-packed, it may not close, so you’ll sit on it until it does. When you write in a suitcase style, the reader is often challenged to comprehend the writer’s main point. To make complexity comprehensible, the writer must slow down the pace for the reader. I remember sitting in 11th grade advanced algebra and listening to lessons I could not understand and wanting to shout from the back of the room, “Please slow down!”
5. Use shorter words, shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.
This is one of the most useful strategies passed down to writers by Donald Murray. Shorter sentences mean more periods. More periods mean more stopping points. More stopping points create a slower pace for the reader. A slower pace helps the reader digest bits and bites. I’m exaggerating the effect in this paragraph, which is getting tedious from too many sentences of the same length. But the idea is sound: smaller units of language at the points of greatest complexity.
6. Focus on the impact.
A famous editor once told his city hall reporter than he wanted more city and less hall. Readers will engage with a piece of writing if they know it’s written with their needs in mind. My first city editor, Mike Foley, taught me to avoid writing reports that said in effect, “They held a meeting Thursday.” The meeting itself was not important, he argued. Did they raise property taxes? If so the writer has a duty to convey the consequences to the reader. If necessary, the writer might teach readers how to compute property taxes based on the value of their property and the new rate of taxation.
7. Alternate between what is important and what is interesting.
It’s not the job of the writer to make interesting things seem important. That’s easy. If you don’t believe me, watch cable news. The hard job is to make important things interesting – that is, to create public interest. Important stuff – if tedious – will drive readers away to the nearest video game. So spice up those Brussels sprouts. It is your curiosity as a writer that will drive you down below the colorless surface to find the facts, details, or human elements that bring a piece of reporting to life.
8. Have a chat with your imaginary friend.
You may be mired in complexity. A single conversation with a single person can force you to simplify your message. Don’t be fussy. This can work as an actual face-to-face conversation, an exchange of messages, or a chat with a make-believe friend. Writers have confessed to me that they imagine a conversation on the phone with someone they know or a chat with a friendly stranger on the next bar stool.
9. Make the strange feel familiar.
Although fiction writers may strive to make the familiar feel strange, it is the job of the explanatory writer to make the strange feel familiar. Tools such as analogies and metaphors help readers understand something new in terms of what they already know. What is sometimes called “the plain style” may look effortless, but it takes a rigorous execution of craft, beginning with learning the key technical words, translating them from words of Latin and Greek origin to straight English, and finding an elegant analogy that makes the mysterious somehow familiar.
10. Keep the dullest parts short.
I keep near my computer an old saying attributed to an influential editor named Barney Kilgore: “The easiest thing for a reader to do is quit reading.” A corollary might go like this: “The reader will forgive the writer for almost anything – but not for being a bore.” The best way to deal with some difficult information is to leave it out of the story. Or edit it from a draft through revision. It may seem odd, but readers may understand more if writers give them less. Take out the clutter. Deliver the goods.