Monday, May 19, 2014

Simplifying: making technical information easy to read

If you are a beginning writer, you are probably learning that it is surprisingly difficult to simplify technical information. In other words, it’s hard to make technical information easy to read.

Unfortunately, the ability to simplify technical information usually takes many years to acquire. I don’t say this to discourage you; it’s just a fact.

Fortunately, there is a bright side: You eventually will become really good at simplifying. It doesn’t require any special gifts. Just practice and feedback.

One writer who is very good at simplifying is Andrew Beyer (pictured), a journalist for the Washington Post. He has been writing articles and books about horse race betting for decades. A few days before the 2014 Kentucky Derby, he wrote an article on the role of pace:

He takes one paragraph to introduce the topic of pace:
The best horse doesn’t necessarily win the Kentucky Derby. Sometimes the best horse is trounced, because the outcome of the race can be dramatically affected by the early pace. Even though California Chrome is the most accomplished horse in 140th Derby, his chances may hinge on the way the first half mile of the race is run.
Then he takes a paragraph to describe pace generally:
All horseplayers know the axioms of pace handicapping: When a horse takes the early lead without much pressure, setting a slow pace, he will have strength in reserve to fend off the challenges of stretch runners. Conversely, when the early leaders battle each other and run too fast, they are apt to weaken and set the stage for stretch runners.
Then he explains why pace is especially important in the Derby:
These truths apply at every level of the sport, but they are especially important in the Derby. With its now-customary 20-horse fields, more front-running types are apt to be in the Derby than in a normal race. Because of the oversize fields, jockeys may have to hustle their horses early to secure a decent tactical position.
It is easy to follow what he is saying, even if you’ve never handicapped a race.

The Takeaway: The ability to simplify is one of those abilities that you acquire slowly and steadily. If you are a beginning writer, have patience. Keep seeking feedback from editors and readers. Over time, you will become highly skilled at simplifying.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for pointing out the article.

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