Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.

I know a writer who has a habit of making things harder than they are. Oh, you know the typeóheís smart, maybe brilliant, but he suspects that everyone else is smarter than him and heís always looking for the catch.


A conversation with him can go like this:


Me: What color is the third thing from the left?

Him: The first two are green.

Me: Okay, but what color is the third thing from the left?

Him: I donít see anything on the left.

Me: Okay, see those five things?

Him: Yes.

Me: What color is the third thing from the left?

Him: The one on the right is blurry.

Me: Could be. But what color is the third thing from the left? Itís also the third thing from the right.

Him: Well, Iím not sure the things have been drawn properly.

Me: Thatís possible. But what color is the third thing from the left? Itís the one in the middle.

Him: I donít know why you need to know this.

Me: Iím working on a project that describes the things.

Him: I donít need to know this.

Me. Thatís right, but I DO need to know and you have access to the image. Can you see the image?

Him: Yes.

Me: What color is the third thing from the left?

Him: The ones on the left are green.

Me: Yes, you told me that. I need to know what color the one in the middle is.

Him: Itís different from the others.

Me: Okay, so what color is it?

Him: Itís not a nice color.

Me: Here. Letís try this. Please tell me all the colors of all the things in the image.

Him: I already told you that the ones on the left are green.

Me: Yes, thank you. What are the other colors of the other things?

Him: They are red and yellow.

Me: Which ones are red?

Him: The one on the right.

Me: And the one in the middle?

Him: Thatís not the yellow one.

Me: Okay, well, what color is it, the one in the middle?

Him: Itís blue.

Me: Thank you.


Exchanges like this can take up to 20 minutes, I kid you not. Yesterday, I had TWO such conversations, one with the bonus of him saying that he hadnít answered directly before because Iíd told him to stop working on another (unrelated) project earlier. Now I realize that the exchange that I made up above makes him sound like Trouble with a Capital T, but heís really a nice man, not at all silly or stupid, and I believe that he really wants to write truly excellent documents. Itís just that he always thinks thereís something complicated behind everything. Sometimes, thereís nothing behind the questionóitís all right up front.


The problem, as I see it, isnít that heís obtuse or that heís trying to obstruct progress or even that heís trying write a lengthy piece. Itís that he doesnít imagine that ANYTHING can be as simple as it seems.


So hereís the thing, when it comes to writing (and conversations with your editor): simplify. Just plain simplify.

Making Things Difficult (Simplifying)

If you try to see greater levels of depth in everything, you will get so bogged down in the details that you will be prevented from proceeding. Weíll lose context because youíre so busy trying to be comprehensive that youíll wander down tangents. They might be perfectly useful tangents, but we wonít really need them until we understand the basic thing first. You can see that, right?


The key is to keep coming back to the original question and to make sure that 80% or so of your sentences go toward directly answering the question. Like this:


The third thing from the left is blue. There are five things. The two on the left are green, the one in the middle is blue, the next one is yellow, and the one on the right is red.


In that paragraph, the first sentence directly answers the question. The second sentence provides contextónow we know that of the five things, at least one is blue. The next sentence provides the details (which we may or may not need) about all the things, including the basic information that we were after in the first place.


There probably isnít much more to be said about the colors of the things or the color of the third thing from the left. Maybe there is, though. Maybe what the things are or what they do, or what theyíre made out of or used for is also relevant to the big picture. But those topics clearly donít answer the question ďWhat color is the third thing from the left?Ē


Iím not saying that you canít cover the other, more complex aspects of your subject if thatís appropriate. Iím saying to be sure you answer the question first, last, and in the middle. If you find yourself talking about what the five things are made of or whether they are in appropriate colors for the time of year, you have to check in and see what the title of the piece is. If itís Five Colored Things, then you can go ahead. Provide context first by simplifying your subject with a direct response like this:


There are five things of varying colors. From the left, two are green, one is blue, one is yellow, and one is red.


But if your title is The Color of Middle Things, youíd better start with this:


The middle thing is blue.


So hereís what you do when you have a subject that IS convoluted and complicated. You simplify it into its smallest parts by (yes, you guessed it) outlining.


Letís say you want to describe something youíve never done before like, say, programming a cell phone. (Iíve never had a cell phone, so I donít actually know that itís complicated. But I digress.) The first thing you do is build an obvious structure that makes sense and that provides a kind of safe haven for the hard stuff. Letís try it.


I.             Open the package.

a.    Take the phone and components out of the box.

b.    Find the instructions.

II.           Read the instructions.

a.    Identify anything that is a safety issue.

b.    Identify anything that must be done first.

III.           Start assembling the phone.

a.    Put the battery in.

                                         i.    Verify that the phone turns on.

b.    Check for a dial tone.

IV.         Follow the instructions for basics.

a.    Enter time, date, etc.

b.    Enter the number that makes this phone ring.

c.    Choose a ring tone.

V.           Find the instructions for programming the phone.

a.    Identify what you want the phone to do.

                                         i.    Enter frequently called numbers.

                                       ii.    Enter how your name will appear on Caller ID.

                                      iii.    Select options like Caller ID.

VI.          Follow the instructions for programming the phone


Yup, I know that doesnít cover actually programming the phone, but you can see that Iíve laid the groundwork for it. Now, as I read the instructions/specs/marketing materials and play with the phone myself, I can easily place new topics that are real into appropriate places in my outline. And, as I discover how to actually program the phone, I can cover that too.


I know my title is How to Program a Cell Phone, but Iíve got all this basic stuff in the way before I actually get to item VI: Follow the instructions for programming the phone. Somehow, Iíve got to get directly to that answer without all those tangents.


Okay, so the answer to the question cannot be put into a single outline point. That means you have to discern which of the basic stuff youíve got to cover so that your audience can follow along. You need basic definitions (like brand names, keypads, special features, and so forth) so that your readers can follow along. Look at my outline and see where youíd put that physical description of the cell phone.


Got it? Yup, thatís right. It belongs between II and III. You can unpack the phone, and you might want to look at the directions, but you canít get very far if you donít know where the keypad is or where the battery goes.


Now you have to decide if you need any of that other stuff that came before (unpacking the box is pretty lame, after all) or if anything should appropriately be moved to the definitions or the actual programming of the phone. Then you can snip and add merrily until itís all fleshed out AND simplified and you can write the piece.


You already know that context is as important as the topic under discussion. If you donít know your colors (or numbers or letters), or youíre colorblind (or visually impaired in some other way), or you donít have access to the image (or the phone), or if you only see two things (and neither is the On button), of course you canít tell me what color the third thing from the left is (or how to program a cell phone). Itís important to clear writing that you just say: I donít know. Say it to yourself first and youíll see that itís not that painful not to know something. Then you can figure out who to ask or whether there has to be an answer.


Heck. Itís not even that painful to make a public mistake because you didnít know something or you were typing too fast or some such thing (as I know from having my errors pointed out to me by helpful readers).


The trick is to be brave, to simplify as much as possible, and then to go exploring for the harder stuff and write about it as simply as the subject will let you. That might mean short sentences or short paragraphs. It might mean that you repeat or paraphrase yourself. It might even mean that you use the identical words as are in your title.


When you have a direct question to answer, perhaps asked by the title of your piece, or maybe youíve got to fill a hole in your plot, my suggestion is that you just head for the simplest, most direct answer first. Youíll probably need to elaborate to provide context, but start with simple. If you can manage to stay simple, that would be appreciated too.


So now tell me: What color is the third thing from the left?