15 April 2012

Keep It Simple

The KISS principle seems to apply to everything.  If you do an internet search on those words there are dozens of topics to which it's been applied.

Although I don't talk about it much on this blog, the majority of my paid writing is non-fiction: technical writing and training materials, together with occasional articles.

I recall reading an article, years ago, on how to write articles and news-type features. It described them as pyramid shaped.  The title is the pointed part of the pyramid - short but effective, giving the reader an idea of what the article is about. The first paragraph is the middle of the pyramid, covering the main points - the who, what, where, when, why and how of the story.  The succeeding paragraphs contain the whole story in greater detail.

I read the article years ago, but in this age of information overload the principle applies even more.  I find myself doing exactly this whether I'm reading a newspaper, magazine or webpage.  A title or heading catches my attention.  I read the first paragraph, and that should let me know whether I'm interested enough to read the rest, or move on.

If you're reading a technical manual or training material, it's usually because you have to read it as you need the information.  But that doesn't mean the writer can get away with not making it interesting and easy to understand.  Non-fiction material should also have catchy, but useful chapter/heading titles, and the initial paragraph should give an overview of what is coming, before launching into the subject content.

For training materials, and actual training sessions or presentations I keep this in mind.
  • Tell your audience what you're going to cover.
  • Give them the information.
  • Summarise what you've just told them.
The evening news is a good example of this.  The presenters start with the headlines. They then cover each of the items in more detail, which often involves on-the-ground reports from journalists.  Finally there is a roundup of the headlines.

Some of the best non-fiction books I've read start each chapter with a set of objectives - this is what you will know/understand/be able to do by the end of this chapter, and then finish the chapter with a summary of what the reader should have learned.

In between this I find it useful if the content is sprinkled with relevant examples, case studies or anecdotes.  People love stories.  We relate to stories and so remember them longer than just an isolated piece of information.


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