I’m a fanboy of Tim Urban’s Waitbutwhy

I’m a little enamoured with Wait But Why. About three months ago I read my first article on the site — the one on artificial intelligence — and I fell in love with its simplicity. I remember thinking, how can someone make something as complicated and convoluted as AI understandable to a layperson like me with such ease?! It must be some sort of black magic!

Well, three months after and having read many more long-form articles on the site, I figured it probably is black magic. Tim Urban’s way of writing? That’s the magic.

His writing is as complex as it needs to be, which is not that complex at all. It is simple prose and a healthy dose of witty humour that gets people reading long-form articles (easily > 5,000 words) from start to finish. Wait, I almost forgot the most important piece of the sorcery: pictures. Again, simple pictures — all hand-drawn and crudely illustrated but incredibly effective in conveying a message or breaking down an idea.

Simple prose, witty humour, and crooked hand drawings. That’s what keeps me (and 217,000 others) reading his long-form stuff?

Tim Urban’s hand-drawn illustrations, featuring the mother of crookedness — the Panic Monster

Well, those three ingredients are what I think to be the foundations of Waitbutwhy’s success so far. It doesn’t sound that hard, right?

Wrong. I’ve tried using writing to explain things to myself, and they most often turn out to be inscrutable. You see, I think we think that we can all be Tim Urbans, but it takes a lot more practice and behind-the-scenes hard work to pull it off.

Think about how much time Tim would have to dedicate to reading materials (books, blogs, forums, online media outlets, the news, and oh my god academic journals) in order to gain some understanding of a particular subject. I imagine him having to read at least 10 books, 15 blog posts, 50 articles from various media outlets online, even more pieces of news, 100 messages of forums and god knows how many inscrutable journal articles just so he can gather enough ideas before formulating and then writing an article like this, which was eventually followed by this.

What makes things even more difficult is knowing that there are experts who read his stuff, who could call him on his game and embarrass him and discredit all that he has read and written and shared. Imagine having to click that “Publish” button knowing that a few hundreds of thousands of people would eventually read that article, some of whom could eat you up like an Indonminus rex. Talk about pressure!

But something in me makes me want to take on the challenge, too. His simple and understandable (but unforgivingly long) articles are oddly inspiring. They remind me what language is supposed to be about. Language is meant for communicating, and with that in mind, comprehensibility becomes the pinnacle of good language use. And with all that said, it just feels good to know that in order to be the best at writing one only needs to write in the simplest way understandable.

And that’s why I’m fanboy-ing over Tim Urban (along with many thousands of people, unless he bought all his Facebook followers…).

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