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The Simplicity Paradox: Easy words don't come easy

Slogans, poems, and Ikea manuals have something in common: They all look deceptively easy to create. Deceptive, because often the easier something appears to read, the more effort went into crafting it. Clear, concise writing hides a meticulous process of editing and revision. The Simplicity Paradox: Easy words don't come easy.

The Simplicity Paradox: Easy words don't come easy.

Why do we spend so long perfecting our texts? By shaping and reshaping our thoughts, we can boil them down to their essence and at the same time observe them from different perspectives – including our readers’ perspective. Simply put, it helps with getting a message across efficiently.

Do or do not, there is no try

Rather than waiting for a eureka moment of inspiration, there are strategies you can apply to achieve simplicity in your texts. One way is to follow the principles of plain language, which aim to make documents clear, logical, and accessible for your intended audience.

With plain language, you avoid jargon, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity. Instead, you use common words, short sentences, and active voice wherever possible. You can also guide your reader by organizing content in lists and tables.

Text isn’t everything of course. When it comes to the look and feel of a document, consider using fonts and colours that enhance readability. Images or diagrams can help keep the reader engaged while they absorb the information.

Writers, kill your darlings

Some techniques from prose writing translate surprisingly well to technical documentation. In literature, to kill your darlings means to get rid of storylines, dialogue, or characters that do not support the story. They create unnecessary clutter for a reader who is trying to keep track of everything. While it hurts to erase something you’ve created, it helps drive the story and keep the reader on track.

In technical documentation, we refer to this concept as minimalism. We focus on providing only the information that users need to perform their tasks. Often, this means deleting background theory or irrelevant options. This way, users can quickly navigate the text, solve problems, and learn from their own experience.

Know your audience

However, simplicity does not mean oversimplification. You still need to cover the important aspects of your topic, and provide enough depth and detail for your audience. As such, you need to know who you are writing for and how they interact with the documentation. Only then can you accurately judge which information is crucial and which is supplementary.

Simplicity is not a shortcut; it is a result of careful planning and revision.

Understanding your readers also allows you to craft use cases and visuals. Break away from the theory and engage your readers by making the text relevant to their experience.

Simplicity is not a shortcut; it is a result of careful planning and revision. To quote Mark Twain, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." Writing simple documentation takes time and effort, but it pays off in the end.


F.R. David (1982), Words (don't come easy to me)


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