Updated: Jul 29, 2020
I have two writer hats. One is a marketing content writer hat—all business and persuasion—the other is speculative fiction; full of fantastical worlds and odd things. While these two styles appear to be at different ends of the writing spectrum, in truth, they have a lot of crossovers. Especially when it comes to explaining complex ideas.
Whether you’re writing science or science fiction, these strategies can help you explain complex ideas to the everyday reader.
Use Plain English
This is perhaps my biggest bugbear with academic and government writing. Too often, it is overly complex. The words are long, the sentences longer, and the language so dressed up that is it difficult to follow.
In short, keep it simple. As science fiction author, Terry Bisson, says: The more extraordinary the idea, the more ordinary the language.
Tips for writing in Plain English
Use common words.
Keep sentences short (ideally under 35 words).
Eliminate passive voice where possible.
Find words that end in ‘ion’ and ‘ment’ and rewrite their sentences using the root word. For example: discussion → discuss, or better still: talk. Acknowledgement → acknowledge.
Here’s a before and after example from painlanguage.gov:
This program promotes efficient water use in homes and businesses throughout the country by offering a simple way to make purchasing decisions that conserve water without sacrificing quality or product performance.
This program helps homeowners and businesses buy products that use less water without sacrificing quality or performance.
Now to be fair, both academic and government agencies have come on a long way in the last few years. The Conversation is a prime example of how to make academic research accessible to the ordinary citizen.
Be careful of jargon
This comes back to knowing your audience. If you’re writing about black holes for an audience of astrophysicists, they’ll understand the complex scientific terminology used in your field. If you’re writing for general consumption, keep it to a minimum. No matter how interesting the subject matter, I am not willing to look up every fourth word on Google.
That said, not all jargon is bad. Sometimes it’s needed. In these instances, define it in the text.
To carry on with the black hole example:
The friction in a black hole’s accretion disk—the cloud of gas and matter that surrounds the event horizon—causes it to rotate in a spiral-like fashion.
This also works in fiction. You can also help readers infer meaning from the context of the work. Here’s an example one from my works in progress where I do both:
Skaar inched forward and the tension rose in his bones.
It felt like the edge of a hugrokar.
He snorted. Impossible. No empathic link was that strong. He changed direction, and in three steps, an iron grip seized his muscles, stopping him dead.
Tip: if you’re writing online and find yourself needing to use jargon, hyperlink it to a definition. This ideal if you have multiple audiences, i.e. ones familiar with your “insider-isms”, and ones who are not.
Explain it verbally—then write it the same way
Have you ever begun an email only to think, ‘this would be easier to explain on over the phone?’
Writing is full of flamboyant language that is rarely found in everyday speech. In short, speech is efficient (if fragmented). Yet, too often writers think that a complex idea needs complex writing to explain it.
Explaining your idea verbally to a third party—be it an editor,colleague, friend or parent—helps to strip away the wordiness and get straight to the point. What’s more, it helps to clarify the concept in your mind, so that when it comes time to write, it’s easier to relay the most crucial elements on paper.
Tip: Once you’ve successfully explained your idea to a third-party, write it down the same way. Do it straight away while it’s still fresh.
Be brief: but don’t sacrifice precision or clarity
This advice came to me from science editor, Stephen White. When writing and editing science, aim for the following (in order of importance):
You not cannot sacrifice a point above for one of the ones below it. Sacrificing precision in favour of clear and brief writing, for instance, could make a statement inaccurate.
While the advice was intended for science writers and editors, it applies to many (if not all) forms of writing. In short, make your point, make it clear and move on.
How to improve precision, clarity and brevity
1. Rework noun clusters. For example, real time online high level monitoring program. This example might be brief, but it isn’t clear. Punctuate, hyphenate and include prepositions (to, as, with, from etc). It’s a real-time, high-level monitoring program that’s online whenever you need it.
2. Avoid long strings of adjectives: in other words, “flowery language”. Use prepositions to improve clarity. She was a tight-arsed, frugal, wealthy woman → She was a frugal, but wealthy woman.
If you're after more editing tips, read: 5 grammar hacks to help you edit your writing.
Use examples, simile and metaphor
Examples are an excellent tool to illustrate a concept in action. This article is a case in point. In fiction, similes and metaphors can take the place of an example to help readers visualise an idea.
My cat’s tongue is rough. How is it rough? Rough like the edge of a saw? Rough like gravel?
My cat’s tongue is rough, like sandpaper. Ah-ha!
Note, similes and metaphors are not exclusive to fiction. You can use them in non-fiction, journalism, even business writing too. I once wrote an article for a sales training provider that likened a high-performing sales team to the engine of a race car: what you invest into a team (i.e. the type of fuel) determines its performance. The client loved it.
Anchor it with realism
This applies mainly to creative writing. If you’re describing a foreign world or setting, ground it with elements that the reader will recognise. This could include anything from the laws of physics to a familiar trope, sight, taste or smell, or setting.
To see it in action, here’s an example from the opening of Robin Hobb’s The Dragon Keeper:
They had come so far, yet now that she was here, the years of journeying were already fading in her mind, giving way to the desperate needs of the present. Sisarqua opened her jaws and bent her neck. It was hard for the sea serpent to focus her thoughts. It had been years since she had been completely out of the water. She had not felt dry land under her body since she had hatched on Other’s Island. She was far from Other’s Island’s hot dry sand and balmy waters now.
In describing the sea serpent, Hobb grounds the idea with realities of aquatic life, namely of hatching and scrambling across the land to the sea like turtles do. Moreover, we know this serpent has jaws and a neck, just like the real animals we know. She does the same with Other’s Island, invoking the image of a tropical island in just a few words. These elements not only bring this fictional creature to life, but also clarifies what kind of creature is it for the reader.
For more fiction writing tips, read: The best fiction writing tips I've received (so far)
As I say in all my blogs, these are the tips and tricks that help me. Take what is useful, ignore what isn’t.
Lastly, if you’re still struggling to communicate your strange idea, never underestimate what a second pair of eyes can bring to a piece.