How to Get Ideas Into Another Person’s Head Using Only Words
Let me share with you the nature of my toil. I’ve got all this stuff in my head that I believe you would enjoy having in your head. That’s why I write.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds. There is great distance from my head to yours, with terrible obstacles in between. Plus, the inside of your head is its own universe, filled with its own glittering thoughts and ravishing ideas. You have little room for anything else! And a million other distraction enthusiasts are trying to dump their hot thought-products into your head as well. Idea panhandlers are stationed at every corner begging you to read their cardboard scrawl. So when I come dancing in with my dazzle sticks and word plays, trying to get you to consider my thoughts, you resist (as you should).
Yet I still want to break through. But how?
The first thing is to have something worthy to say. Something worth your time. Good writers respect their audiences and filter their ideas before sharing—they don’t write a post for every dumb thought that gives them a cognitive tickle (that’s what Twitter is for).
But once I have something to say, how do I say it? I have found that my writing is best when it is effective at 3 things: readability, communication, and concision. This can be put on a Venn diagram (so it must be true, right?) like this:
A: Readability: This is all about how the writing tastes. How easy are these words to devour? Does it come off as conversational, like old friends at a bar? Or does it weaken the eyelids, like an insurance agent explaining terms & conditions? Does it sound natural? Or calculated? Does it sound true, or merely intellectual?
B: Communication: This is all about delivery. Has the idea transferred? You can have all the style in the world, a total joy to read, yet still not communicate a damn thing. Remember: the goal is to have an idea migrate from my brain to yours, and for that idea to be installed over there in your operating system. This requires clarity and effective explanation. This is where tools like metaphors, analogies, stories, and statistics are useful.
C: Concision: This is all about economy. We’re all battling tenacious todo lists and time tyrannizes us all with her speed and intractable demands. If I want my words read, I need to be efficient. So I must ask: have I written this with as few words as possible? (note: this is not necessarily about being “short.” Sometimes every word of a 1,000 page novel is needed).
When these three elements are all humming along effectively, people will fall into a text-trance: they will lose themselves in the writing, forgetting they are even reading. The end will come suddenly, and they’ll want more (or they’ll want to read it again).
Succeeding in all 3 is a beautiful thing. But it’s not easy to do. Usually, I only get 2 out of 3:
Good Readability and Good Communication, but Poor Concision:
These pieces are pleasant to read and informative, but long-winded. They come off as being too much of a good thing (example).
FIX: Hone in on what the essential point is you want to make. Then, sharpen the blade and start swinging. Chop-chop-chop. Get rid of as much as you can. Or, repackage more tedious ideas in the form of analogy or story.
Good Concision, Good Communication, but Poor Readability:
These pieces are efficient and informative, but dry. They plod along like a stuffy intellectual—without personality, without heart, without seduction.
FIX: The problem is that you have no voice. There’s no character. Try re-writing the whole thing as if you were speaking it to your friends at the bar. Allow yourself to include why this writing matters to you. If you don’t give a damn about it, why should your reader?
Good Concision and Good Readability, but Poor Communication:
These pieces have personality, read well, and are efficient, but often feel either like there is no point, or the point is confusing. The pointless ones hum along, they do things, they sparkle, but nothing is accomplished. It’s like watching a hockey game with no nets: it might be fun for a while, but the meaninglessness will eventually get to you. The confusing ones are charming, but you don’t understand what the writer is saying. It’s like listening to a 5 year old (cute as a button) describe a strange dream, or a rock star share their views on God. They both might be a joy to listen to, but you get NOTHING out of it.
FIX: The first thing is to ask yourself: do I really know what I’m talking about? C.S.Lewis said something like “If you don’t understand what a writer is saying, chances are they don’t understand it, either.” Ideas often start as subtle intuitions, or vague feelings. If we jump to our keyboard too soon, no matter how readable we are, our output will come off as ambiguous. Crude. We need to let the concepts ripen. We need anecdotes, analogies, and experiences. Or, villains. A great way to get clarity on a new idea is to think about all the ideas that our new idea confronts, or overthrows. How is this idea so much better than all these other lousy ones?
Once I have something worth saying, I try to keep these elements in my mind as I write. I haven’t mastered it, but the more I try the closer I get. (some examples where I’ve come close: example1 example2 example3).