Sumana Harihareswara wrote an interesting blog post Plain Language
Choices recently, about
writing about complicated topics using simple language and how it can sometimes
come off as condescending.
I really like explaining complicated topics while trying to avoid
unnecessary jargon, and I realized that I’ve thought a lot about how to do it
well. So here are a bunch of things I try to do when I use simple language to
avoid coming off as condescending.
use some jargon to give the reader search terms
Sometimes I see writing that completely avoids all jargon and instead
substitutes simple language for all “jargon”-y words.
I like to include some jargon in my explanations because otherwise it’s
impossible for the reader to search & learn more about the concept they’re
trying to learn about.
write (mostly) true explanations
Something else I see sometimes in ELI5-type explanations is an explanation in
plain language that’s not actually true in a useful way. I’m pretty sympathetic
to why people do this – it’s super hard to write simple explanations that are
And actually sometimes when I’m trying to write down a simple/clear explanation
for a concept, I realize that I don’t actually understand the concept as well
as I thought and that I’m not able to explain it. That’s okay!
I think there are a few options here:
- try to say only things that are true (or at least which are a useful
model for how the world works even if they’re not 100% true)
- write things that are not really true / that you’re not sure of, but point
out that they may not be true (“I think it works like X, but I realize now
that it might be Y instead, I’m not sure!“)
only use “fun” visual elements on explanations that are actually well written & easy to understand
This happens more with visual aids than with simple language but I’ll include
it anyway. Sometimes I see explanations which have “fun” elements to it to make it
them seem more approachable where the explanation itself is still pretty unclear.
I try to be careful about this in my own work – I try to only attach “fun”
elements (like a fun illustrated cover) to explanations that I’ve spent a lot
of time on making really clear. Basically to me “fun” things are a signal that
the content itself is really clear/accessible, and I try to not misuse that
I think why’s poignant guide to ruby is a nice
example of something that’s fun and clear and which has helped a lot of people learn Ruby.
Another nice example of this is: I know someone who got her master’s thesis
printed as a paperback book and illustrated with some great drawings related to
the topic of her thesis (trans represensentation in media).
It’s called “I’m supposed to relate to this?”, here’s the paperback.
I ended up reading
the whole thing because, in addition to having the fun illustrations, her
master’s thesis was really well written and interesting! The fact that she did
the work to print a paperback book of her thesis and get it illustrated was a
sign that she’d worked on making the writing accessible to a non-academic
audience, and it was true!
tell a relevant story
Stories can really help people learn! For example, something I’ve
done a lot on this blog is talk about a problem I ran into in the course of my
job and what I did to solve that problem.
Some kinds of stories that I think work well:
- a real problem that someone ran into, to motivate why the concept is
interesting / important to learn
- something that’s happening on a computer, framed as a “story” (for
example https://howdns.works/ tells a story about how DNS works. Everything
in the story literally corresponds to exactly what happens when you make a
Sometimes I see stories used to explain concepts that don’t fit into either of
these and feel kind of pasted on, like they’re there to help the concept seem
“fun” but don’t actually illustrate the concept or motivate why it might be
useful to learn it.
have a specific audience in mind
I try to write relatively simple explanations, but when I write I also
generally assume a lot of knowledge on the part of my audience.
Sometimes I see explanations of complicated concepts that start with explaining
the very basics of the topic. This usually isn’t that effective: if someone is
trying to understand some super technical aspect of containers, they probably
understand the basics of containers already!
“Have an audience” is more of a general writing tip so I’ll leave it at that.
on using simple language as a joke for people who already understand the idea
Here’s a very fun explanation of a complicated thing using simple language:
Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable.
On one hand, this is fun! I enjoyed reading it. On the other hand, I think the
main audience for this is probably people who already more or less understand
Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem.
For example, someone pointed out that “if math is a not a load of bunk” in this
text is code for “Peano arithmetic is consistent” with (“math” being “Peano
arithmetic” and “not a load of bunk” meaning “consistent”). Which I find very
charming, but also I found it a little hard to decode when reading it.
And (as we talked about before about jargon), if you know that “Peano arithmetic is
consistent” is the relevant bit of jargon, you can find all kind of fascinating
things, like a blog post by John Baez from 2011 discussing an attempted proof that Peano arithmetic was inconsistent)
(I’m also reminded here of the XKCD up goer five,
which is very delightful, but I don’t think I learned anything about spaceships
from reading it)
I’d love to hear more thoughts on this – I think there are probably more ways
that simple explanations can feel condescending that I’ve missed!
I really don’t think they need to feel condescending though – to me the
point of writing a clear/simple explanation is usually that I think the idea is
not actually fundamentally that complicated and so I’m just explaining it in
a way that’s exactly as complicated as it needs to be.