How to Make Complex Topics Simpler in Writing

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July 18, 2019 1:14 pm

How to Make Complex Topics Simpler in WritingAs a content marketer, sooner or later, you’ll be tasked with writing an article on a complex topic. Maybe your industry is naturally complicated and difficult for newcomers to understand, or maybe a new piece of legislation will affect your industry, and your job will be dissecting it and presenting it to your audience.

This problem can kick in a number of different circumstances; abstract ideas, high-level terminology, and nuanced topics can all be challenging to parse and present to a lay audience. Fortunately, there are some strategies that can help.

Start With the Big Picture

One of the best strategies is to lead with the big picture. Rather than focusing on what’s complex about your topic, focus on what’s simple about it. For example, while you could get into the legal nuances of workers’ compensation laws as they vary from state to state, it’s better to broadly explain what workers’ compensation is and why it exists. Instead of trying to explain all the technical factors that should factor into a stock investment decision, start with an explanation of how stocks function as equity in a company.

Providing readers with an “overview” section that’s just a few sentences long will give them context they can apply to the rest of your article, making it much easier to understand.

Pretend You’re Talking to a Six-Year-Old

Albert Einstein is frequently credited with claiming that “if you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” This attribution is in question, but the principle remains. Children have a much smaller vocabulary than adults, and are limited in their understanding of how the world works.

Nevertheless, they have enormous potential to learn new concepts if they’re presented in a digestible way. If you find yourself unable to present the topic in terms a six-year-old could understand, it’s an indication you might be parroting the language of experts rather than internalizing and simplifying the concept for yourself.

Try to explain the topic in words a young child would understand. This will force you to boil the concept down to its base components. If you find you’re unable to communicate the concept clearly, it may be a sign you need additional research or contemplation.

Use a Metaphor (Carefully)

Metaphors are extraordinarily powerful, if used correctly. For example, take the concept of space-time in general relativistic physics, which is only accurately understood and expressed in complex mathematical equations. However, the average person can loosely understand how gravity affects space-time by considering objects “warping” the “fabric” of space-time like a heavy ball sitting on a sheet of fabric stretched thin.

Metaphors aren’t perfect. Even a solid, appropriate metaphor won’t be able to accurately convey the entirety of your chosen topic, and if you extend the metaphor too far, it will leave people with a false impression or be inconsistent with the point you’re trying to make. You can compensate for this by keeping your metaphors simple and to-the-point, and by using multiple different metaphors to show the different sides of the concept you’re trying to introduce.

Focus on Small Sections or Phases

As long as you’ve already introduced the “big picture” of the topic, you can start focusing on smaller sections, or phases of development. For example, if you’re trying to explain how computers work, you could start writing sections on different components of a computer, including the CPU, the RAM, and the hard drive.

If you have flexibility on formatting, you could even split the topic into a series of shorter, niche-focused posts. Then, you can write one comprehensive post that includes links to all these sub-topical posts, so readers who have difficulty getting the high-level concept can conduct further reading at their own discretion.

Cite What Other People Have Said

You probably aren’t the first person to tackle this topic, though you might be one of the first to try and make it simpler for a lay audience. In any case, you’ll have plenty of writers to read, cite, and quote to improve your own article. Look for phrases that succinctly and understandably describe elements of the concept you’re trying to define, and don’t be afraid to embed them in your own work (with proper attribution). Having multiple experts on the topic use different language to describe the same thing can give more people the chance to understand it themselves.

Use Shorter Sentences and Paragraphs

As long as you aren’t overly relying on truncated sentences, most online content can benefit from shortened sentences and paragraphs. This has two important purposes for the article. First, forcing yourself to write shorter sentences and use fewer sentences per paragraph forces you to focus on one element of the topic at a time. It prevents you from getting carried away, or including too much information in bulk.

Second, it gives readers more anchor points to improve their comprehension. If they feel lost or confused, they only have to reread one sentence to improve their understanding. They can take things one sentence at a time until they start to “get it.”

Use Bullet Points and Numbered Lists

Everything looks less intimidating and is easier to understand when you try to format it into a bulleted or numbered list. Lists are easy on the eyes, and they allow readers to focus on each item individually without losing the integrity of the entire list. Find excuses to include more lists in your posts, and format them correctly, with bold titles and short, concise list entries that are catchy to the average reader. These are especially powerful for listing common misconceptions, key features, or pros and cons.

You don’t have to oversimplify your content topics to make them understandable (nor should you), but a few measured tactics to reduce their complexity can make your job easier and make your audience more likely to comprehend your chosen subject. With practice, you’ll get even better, and you’ll be able to present even the densest topics in your industry with ease.

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