A complex construction

Keep it simple, smarty-pants

In April 2011 an arts / technology website ran an article entitled “Guns at home more likely to be used stupidly than in self-defence“; an emotive and engaging subject which people tend to have strong and entrenched ideas about on both sides of the argument.

It wasn’t overly long but had dense paragraphs of plain text not ideally suited to web reading and the authors clearly knew this. Tucked away at the end of paragraph seven was the following request:

“If you have read this far, please mention Bananas in your comment below. We’re pretty sure 90% of the respondents to this story won’t even read it first.”

The debate raged on for approximately 150 comments before someone mentioned bananas.

People were clearly engaging with the emotive topic, but still not reading and considering the arguments before them, preferring to digest the much shorter, simpler user comments instead. They may as well have been presented with nothing more than a blank page and an invitation to argue among themselves for a bit.

This is a nice illustration which shows that even if people care about and engage with the subject of your writing, they may still not engage with nor even read your argument.

Why write?

Whatever you want to write about on your website you probably want your visitors to:

  • understand what you are saying;
  • agree with your message but explain their disagreement if not.

You need visitors to read your words if you are going to achieve either of these simple goals, and the best way of doing that is by briefly, clearly and simply expressing what you mean to say. Nothing more, nothing less.

Try to:

  • abridge your text;
  • keep the message as simple as possible while still accurate and meaningful;
  • use language which can clearly be understood by your audience;
  • present the text in a way which aids easy reading from the screen.

Orwell’s righteous offensive against confusion

George Orwell wrote an excellent essay “Politics and The English Language” in 1946; an inspirational piece about language and the politics of obfuscation. It’s available on line in full and although it’s not formatted for easy screen reading (it was 1946) I’d highly recommend it.

Orwell quotes and grapples with a few examples of confused writing. He concludes that the writers suffer from one of the following problems:

  • has a meaning and cannot express it;
  • inadvertently says something else;
  • is almost indifferent as to whether his or her words mean anything or not.

There is a fourth possibility not caused by the literary incompetence of the writer which he goes on to consider. The writer may be trying to deliberately conceal the message to make the intolerable seem reasonable or the flimsy seem thorough:

“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Show your confidence in what you have to say through clarity. If any part of your message is wrong, your readers might do you the favour of gently pointing this out to you, thus improving your future message.

If you disagree with me, please do be gentle in the comments.

Shave away the fuzziness

Occam’s Razor is a scientific principle whereby if you have competing explanations which explain a phenomenon equally well, the best explanation is probably the one which introduces fewer new assumptions.

It helps us to avoid wasting time on misleading, eccentric or incorrect interpretations of the world around us. For example, the following explanations for the substitution of a tooth with a pound when placed under a pillow are equally thorough:

  • it was the tooth fairy.
  • it was your parents.

However, one would require us to rethink almost everything we know about the world and the other would not. Thus the theory that it was your parents is probably the better of the two.

We can use Occam’s Razor as a general guiding rule for good writing (from literature and film plots to political pamphlets and web writing) as well as in science. For example Occam’s Razor suggests that the plot to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is probably more useful to us than the plot to George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace because we can actually understand its meaning.

Karl Popper helps us make sense of the world

Karl Popper believed we should strive for simplicity since it also makes our theories easier to falsify if false, and thus more useful:

“Simple statements, if knowledge is our object, are to be prized more highly than less simple ones because they tell us more; because their empirical content is greater; and because they are better testable.”
– Karl Popper, The Logic Of Scientific Discovery, 1939

I believe this is the main reason why so much writing is inscrutable: if it’s hard to work out the details of an argument, it’s very hard to identify the flaws in the argument. It’s a deliberate tactic. The argument’s proponent feels much more secure using obfuscated language which hides any possible errors behind a fog of incomprehensible nothingness. We may have got nothing out the experience of reading it, but it’s hard to argue that the writer was wrong on any points since few points were effectively made.

Why else would the following meaningless statements (culled from the excellent Plain English Campaign’s gobbledegook generator) seem so plausible:

  • We need a more contemporary re-imagining of our millennial organisational resources.
  • It’s time that we became uber-efficient with our holistic policy concepts.
  • You really can’t fail with integrated asset programming.

All these business-speak statements really say is “leave it to me; you don’t understand.” In a world increasingly aware of and irritated by such vacuity, the tactic may have diminishing success in the future (yes, that’s “in the future” as opposed to “going forward”).

Articles such as “50 office-speak phrases you love to hate” are always a popular read.

Watch out for shape-shifters

A word of warning is important here, so let’s misquote Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

He actually said “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience,” but the simplified paraphrase works well for us here.

In short, keep it simple but make sure it still says what you want. It is so easy to enthusiastically trim down text and accidentally change the meaning in the process. Since the meaning is already in the editor’s head it’s difficult for the editor to know how others will interpret it when they are new to the text.

This is nicely illustrated by a clip from a 1938 film starring Will Hay, Old Bones Of The River. Specialising in playing a bungling incompetent accidentally given a role of authority, here we find Hay in colonial Africa, urgently trying to send a Morse code message calling for more troops to quell the native uprising:

Combining a need for brevity and haste, they disastrously changed the meaning of their message to the precise opposite of what they wanted to say.

The reinforcements never arrived.

Simply interesting

According to simplicity theory interesting situations appear simpler to the viewer than expected.

If you want to successfully communicate your message, make it as interesting to your readers as you can; it will help them to stick with it and understand your point. This is obviously easier with some messages than with others but to draw in your readers (and keep Orwell happy):

  • use your imagination;
  • get rid of the clichés;
  • drop in a few bits of illuminating evidence or anecdotes.

A warning from history: it’s not 1998

ICQ was the internet’s first instant messaging system. Its web-masters actually used to proudly joke about its confused and crammed website which you can still see in the Internet Archive in this capture from 1998. 13 years later I still haven’t quite come to terms with its once bewildering hideousness.

Although much less widely used today in the UK and US, ICQ still exists in 2011 with a much more conventionally usable interface.

It’s hard to imagine any new business with active competitors surviving a homepage like ICQ in 1998 today.

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