Lots of people think they know all they need to know about writing. But do they really know how to KISS?
KISS, "keep it simple, stupid," attributed to aircraft engineer Kelly Johnson (1910-1990), is a principle of design used first in the U.S. Navy in 1960. According to an online article, “the KISS principle states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore simplicity should be a key goal in design and unnecessary complexity should be avoided.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KISS_principle)
Leonardo da Vinci said, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The architect Miles Van Der Rohe famously said, “less is more.” And the author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, said “perfection is reached not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
So lots of people, who believe they know everything they need to know about writing, pass along their definitive advice on writing by blithely bidding others to KISS—keep it simple, stupid! And, let’s be real, most of the time when you write at work, you just start typing until you’re done, and that’s good enough.
But what if the document you need to write is just a little compound and complex? What if it has to go to several people and the information is important? Then you need some KISSing strategies. It turns out keeping it simple takes some mindful work.
Some interpret KISS as…USE LITTLE WORDS and SHORT SENTENCES and, perhaps, LOTS OF BULLETS.
Others interpret KISS as…DUMB IT DOWN!
Not that helpful, right?
When somebody admonishes you to KISS, what’s important is that your writing be kept simple. Just saying KISS doesn’t exactly detail how you accomplish this special kind of elegance, sophistication, perfection.
So here’s the big picture of how you KISS in three semi-simple steps, mindful techniques that will help you manage your content, organization, and style.
You need to start with the big picture. Realize that writing is actually a conversation (not a monologue). And understand that any conversation is generated through a loose string of questions and answers. A question asked begins a conversation. An answer given ends the conversation or leads to more questions…more answers…further questions, etc.
Fix in your mind that readers read by looking for the answers to 3 MACRO-QUESTIONS:
1: What is this and why the heck should I care?
2: What’s the “story”?
3: What’s next?
Picture yourself picking up your snail mail, reading an email, glancing through a magazine in the dentist’s office. Slow yourself way, way, way down and notice how you ask those questions...in that order. AND, if you don’t like the answer at any step, how you…hit DELETE…turn the page…throw it away.
Face it, most of the time we don’t really read. We forage for interesting content….
Envision any document you write—from the smallest text to the most simple email, from a complex report to a multi-authored, team-created marketing piece—structured in a way that answers the reader’s three macro-questions. This means you’ll have a three-part document most of the time.
Therefore, the first part, let’s call it “the exordium”… no, let’s just call it the introduction … should let the reader know what issue you’re writing about and what’s in it for her. Keep this part as short as you can. (What is this and why should I care?)
At the end of the intro, preview your main topics for the reader, if there’s more than one topic, so the reader can easily navigate the text…long or short. Don’t skip the preview. It’s really helpful…keeps the reader’s level of effort as low as possible.
The second part, let’s call it the discussion, should be made of sections, each one addressing one of your reader’s main questions about the issue in question. And each section should have a heading to announce the topic…or, better yet, delivering the answer. And be sure to put the answer up front, then explain. (In the Army, they call this BLUF—bottom line up front.) (What’s the “story”?)
The third and final part, let’s call it the ending, should tell the reader what’s next (if anything). What does she need to do next? What will you do next for her? What can she expect to happen? If there’s really nothing next…except the future…just close politely and thank your reader for being so attentive. (What’s next?)
GREAT, now you have the bones of a good conversation with your reader!
As for the style, do these things:
· Use short paragraphs (certainly no more than about 8 lines long). Put the main point of each paragraph first. Then explain as necessary.
· Use short sentences to emphasize key points. Consider using subordination—combining ideas in a sentence by placing less important info in a subordinate clause and more important info in the main clause. (P.S. If you hate grammar, shame on you. Shame, shame, shame. Every activity, almost, has its special terminology/vocabulary that allows you to talk in a detailed way about that activity: think about playing an instrument—“sharps” “flats” “pentatonic scales” “Pat-Metheny-esque melodic runs that send an audience into raptures" (I think that’s a standard musical term, right?) Example: Instead of writing this: “It was a blizzard. I went out.” Write this: “Although it was a blizzard, I went out!!!" That’s subordination. Pretty simple and it helps readers understand you better. (See how difficult long paragraphs are?)
· Go online and learn about the following two things: “the known/new contract” and “nominalizations.” Make an effort. Geeze.
· Use words/vocabulary that you’d use if you were talking to that person face to face. (It’s called plain English.) Some people think “business writing” is some formal version of the English language, like WRITING on sTilTs. It’s not. Remember, your goal is always to address your reader’s appropriate questions about the issue in question…nothing more. Perfection. Sophistication. Simplicity.
· Learn where the commas go. Again, you can find that stuff all over the interweb. Make an effort. I’m no Comma Nazi. I’ve relaxed my standards for inserting commas to about the bare minimum. But there is a bare minimum.
· Proofread your freaking text BEFORE you send it out. I know it takes valuable time you could be using texting your friends, or sculpting your nails, or worrying whether you turned off the iron or not. TAKE THE TIME. Mistakes happen. Do your best to prevent them. When they remain, think of them as spirit trails, letting in the good spirits and letting out the bad ones. Perfection, as we know, is very dangerous.
So that’s it…three simple steps to help you be a better KISSer.
Bottom line? Pay attention. Take care. Consider your reader’s level of interest (which you keep high by addressing her real questions about the issue) and your reader’s level of effort (which you keep low by all of the above).
Any questions? Are there any personal writing issues that keep you from a good KISS?