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The One With the Full-Sized Aortic Pump

In one of my favorite Friends episodes, Joey makes a classic novice writer move: He tries too hard to make himself sound smart. Joey asks Monica and Chandler to let him write a letter to the adoption agency endorsing their candidacy as adoptive parents. Worried about his writing skill, he turns, at Ross’s urging, to the thesaurus—to hilarious effect. Monica sums up the moral of the story when she urges Joey to stop worry about sounding smart and just be himself.

Words to live by for every writer—not just because being yourself is honest but also because trying to sound smart often has the unintended effect of betraying a less-than-full grasp of a complex topic. In the paraphrased words of one of my favorite thinkers, economists, and writers, Deirdre McCloskey, good writing is evidence of good thinking—which means the reverse is true, too: Poor writing is (possibly) evidence of poor thinking. Don’t give your audience a reason to think you don’t understand your topic by writing poorly about it.

Some of the world’s greatest thinkers write in simple language—like economists Thomas Sowell (particularly his later works), Milton Friedman, Henry Hazlitt, or Deirdre McCloskey. All write clearly and simply about their topics, no matter how complex, thereby demonstrating their mastery of them. Readers may not agree with their conclusions, but readers can’t decide whether they agree or not if they can’t decipher the conclusions in the first place.

Complex writing often masks an inability (or unwillingness) to explain a complex topic well. And if you can’t explain it well, you likely don’t understand it as well as you think you do. At a previous job, I was once asked to help with the content editing of a book manuscript. The topic was complex—I worked in finance, so complexity often comes with the territory—but the book was intended for the average individual investor. The author was much smarter than I, particularly on his topic, and understood more about it than I will ever forget. As a result, the draft manuscript was long and confusing—it included more information than was necessary and rambled in ways that lost the average reader (e.g., me). It made one wonder whether the author himself fully grasped what he was trying to explain—or whether he just wasn’t a particularly great writer.

Not wanting to ruffle his feathers, I resorted to playing dumb—one of my favorite editorial tactics when I fear a disagreement over the implication that someone’s writing is unclear or convoluted. I’d call him and say, “Hey, in this section, I’m completely lost because I’m a dummy, so I’m struggling to edit it. Could you walk me through it in layman’s terms?” He’d proceed to tightly and succinctly summarize the section in question, and I’d say, “Why don’t we just write that? It’s clearer and shorter, and I understand it. Are we missing any of the nuance?” “No,” he’d say, and off we’d go with the better written, clearer version. The final manuscript was, I believe, more accessible to the average reader and individual investor.

I’ve placed similar calls to writers at the end of which I’m just as confused as I was at the beginning. The writers are often frustrated with me because they can’t get me to understand what they’re trying to communicate—which is often an indication of their inability to simplify the complex, not a reflection (necessarily) of my ability (or lack thereof) to comprehend. Even if it does reflect my density and not their inability to communicate clearly or their own grasp of the topic, as Deirdre McCloskey points out in her treatise on writing, Economical Writing, clarity is a social matter. Stop blaming your reader for their inability to perceive the point through your opacity. Take the time to simplify the complex. Work hard at finding the simple, clear, concrete words that describe what you’re writing about. Yes, it takes more time and effort than spewing a lot of long, convoluted nonsense. But ultimately, your writing will reach a broader audience because you are clear and easy to understand—even when traversing complex terrain. Sadly, no one ever promised writing was easy—just ask Joey.


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