How I Explain Things

All my essays are either explanations or instructions, most of them full of arguments. I’m not the best writer, but since I write (two newsletters) every week I do get a lot of practice. And over the years (knowingly or unknowingly) I’ve developed a small list of common pitfalls to avoid.

Here are some guidelines I use while explaining things. These aren’t rules I follow all the time. I break them often. But they do help me keep certain things in mind while writing my weekly essays. Hope these will help you as well. Let’s go!

1. Don’t have inconsistent expectations from the reader.

There are authors who will explain the simplest of concepts (such as cognitive bias) in full details while glossing over not-so-easy concepts (such as prospect theory). It doesn’t help. A reader who understands prospect theory understands what’s cognitive bias, but this isn’t true the other way around.

A good approach is to write for a specific person in mind, not a specific segment of audience. A segment is too big and too blurry. If you define a real person (not a fictitious persona) and write for them, you would be in a better position to avoid such inconsistencies.

If you write for your 16-year-old nephew, you wouldn’t even think of glossing over important details without explaining them. If you write for your professor friend, you won’t be explaining everything in details.

As for me, I write for myself. I write to explain things to myself. This is how I learn. It’s not the best way to write (because I often skip explaining important details) and I don’t recommend it, but it has helped me remain consistent all these years, so I can’t risk changing it. 😉

2. Don’t give weird analogies.

While trying to explain a complex (or even a simple) idea, authors often tend to give farfetched analogies. “Think of closing a sale as a bank heist.” While it’s fun to read (and write) good analogies, the real motive often gets lost in translation. If the analogy is “cool” but not appropriate, the reader is left with open questions. This neither serves the writer nor the reader.

The first rule is, don’t use an analogy unless it’s necessary. For example, “When you are in a state of flow, you feel like water running downstream,” is not an important analogy. Readers can understand the concept without the analogy.

And if you have to use an analogy, use one with a limited scope (that has a direct correlation to the concept you are explaining). In Algorithms to Live By, the authors give the analogy of a washer and dryer cycle to explain a scheduling algorithm. It works because for one, it’s a complex topic and, the analogy is limited to wash cycles only (and not washing clothes in general). There’s no ambiguity.

3. Don’t use jargon.

“Probability” is a jargon, even though I use it all the time. “Behavioural Economics” is a jargon. “Ergodicity,” “Empiricism,” “Epistemology,” and other such E words are jargon.

A jargon is confusing because it tricks the reader into thinking something specific is being said, when the information they need is actually not there. “This framework is adversity-secure but not foolproof.” This sentence may sound smart, but is ambiguous. The simpler version would be, “This framework may fail in extreme conditions, especially if we aren’t careful.”

Jargon are also a great way to sound smart without actually being smart. It’s a huuuge pain to write in simple words and, many authors, those who don’t have a clear understanding of the subject, struggle with it all the time. I struggle with it all the time. Bad authors hide behind jargon. Good authors fight them.

4. Don’t introduce too many concepts at a time.

I made this classic mistake when I introduced 25 logical fallacies in one go. It was too much to write. It was too much to read. It was just way too much info to process in one go. Most of these concepts were ‘heavy’ and needed their own space. Cramming them together didn’t leave any breathing space for the reader.

You want the reader to reach the end of the post (in one go) and feel they have learnt something new. Reading about too many things in one go can overload them. It overloads me. It’s also a waste of time if I have to re-read a post just to make sure I understood the concept. I would prefer to read a new post instead.

A good thumb rule is to stick to one topic per post. A second or third topic might be referenced (with a detailed explanation in a separate post) but should never be introduced in one single post.

5. Don’t build suspense.

When you are explaining things, you are optimising for speed and efficiency. You want the reader to skim, understand, and move on. If you are planning to add suspense and drama with a lot of foreshadowing, this isn’t the place.

There are certain types of posts where the real joy is found in reading and experiencing the prose. I call them coffee table posts. Explanations aren’t coffee table posts. Readers come here to get maximum wisdom in minimum time, so don’t waste their time building up a story with a big exposé at the end. It doesn’t work. Readers leave before they reach the end.

Drama is good, but only if you can build tension and release it within a paragraph. Don’t use the whole post for that.

Show Comments