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4 Jul

How to write with clarity and precision

A trait that accompanies curiosity is a kind of generality — maybe not in terms of domain interest — but definitely in terms of observation. Perhaps, this is what they call scholarship or erudition.

You might not be necessarily interested in multiple domains, but if you're sufficiently interested in even one, you will probably try to learn from other domains and borrow insights, metaphors, and ways of seeing/operating from them.

You tend to observe generally, even if your interests are very specific.

And when you do this, a common phenomenon that happens that whenever you start talking about one thing, you tend to meander and digress a lot when communicating. One thing connects with ten things and those ten connect with ten more, until you no longer remember where you started from. This makes it hard for you to close the loop and return to your original argument.

This is a malaise that plagues all curious individuals and we call it “scope creep.”

Scope creep is when you find it hard to limit the scope of what you're talking about simply because it connects with so many different facets and domains of life. But to write crisply and succinctly, managing scope creep is key.

Why is scope creep so bad?

Well, scope creep isn't necessarily bad for you as a writer, but it is bad for your readers. The more the surface area of your argument in terms of the themes it touches on and pulls out of, the more likely that someone will come across a thing that concerns them enough to cast doubt on the rest of the argument.

For instance, if you're writing a persuasive essay on climate change and start introducing touchy topics like immigration policies or economic theories where your readers may have a lot of opinions on — opinions unrelated to the central idea of your piece — they may become confused or lose interest. It's important to stay focused on the main topic and limit scope creep in order to maintain clarity and effectiveness in your writing.

Another example would be: If you're writing a novel and you start introducing too many subplots and side characters that don't contribute to the overall story, it can lead to a bloated and confusing narrative. Your readers may struggle to keep track of all the different storylines and characters, and it can detract from the main plot and themes you are trying to explore.

Imagine that every word that you add to your argument has some probability of triggering a concern or some unrelated imagination for some reader. The higher the number of words, and the higher the number of people who read it, the higher the likelihood that that argument triggers, and at that point, it might snowball.

The effect can be intensified when the argument goes viral or is widely shared, leading to a whole host of unrelated concerns, misinterpretations, or imaginings. You will commonly see this in the comment section of LinkedIn posts that go viral.

(I mentioned the example of viral LinkedIn posts for the sake of illustration. Ironically, it may now force many readers to think of the last viral LinkedIn post they remember and go on a different tangent. You see what I'm saying?)

Solution: Think of developing the minimal-spanning argument.

While it may not always be possible to control the size of the audience, you can exert control over the length of the argument that readers are exposed to. By structuring the argument in a way that presents information systematically and builds upon previously established points, constantly reiterating the central idea, you can help your readers to follow the intended message without getting sidetracked.

You want to keep the main thrust of the argument as tight as possible to convince most readers, while having off-ramps for concerns as they crop up.

Let's say you are writing an essay on the topic of climate change. With the approach mentioned above, you could mention a previous essay you wrote about renewable energy sources and include a hyperlink or reference to it in your current essay. This provides interested readers with additional related information without derailing the main focus of your current essay.

Additionally, you can use footnotes to provide further explanation or clarification on specific points without interrupting the flow of your main text. For instance, if you briefly mention a scientific concept or study, you can add a footnote with more in-depth information or a reference to a relevant research paper. This allows readers who are interested in exploring that detail to do so at their own discretion, while still keeping the main text concise and focused.

Lastly, hinting at resolving a rabbit hole in a future essay can generate intrigue and anticipation for readers. Suppose you mention a topic or question that is pertinent to your current essay but requires in-depth analysis or discussion. Instead of diving into it immediately, you can briefly mention that it will be explored in a future essay. This approach serves as a teaser, keeping readers engaged with your writing and inviting them to look forward to your upcoming work.

This is not about hiding relevant information; it's about not providing more loose, distracting threads than are strictly necessary.

Also, these things help to maintain a cohesive flow in your writing and allow your readers to focus on the main ideas while keeping peripheral ideas separate and optional for that curious minority who wishes to go down potential rabbit holes.

Sticking to the main argument and looping back to it after every sub-argument under the main one is the recipe for writing an essay that feels tight and builds up to a singular message.

Your intent might be genuine and you might wish to share so much more with the world (like I do right now), but as a writer, it will work against you.

Feel free to use this advice in your public and professional writing. And of course, the advice is not limited to long-form writing but even video essays, sales pitches, and presentations.

You can do whatever the hell you want when writing for your own self!

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