One of the things I love about great journalists is that they see writing as a way to convey knowledge. The average blue-collar reader may not get anything of value out of a poem in The New Yorker, but most poets don't evaluate their writing on its value to average people. Not true for great journalists.
Great journalists are obsessive about clarity and take it personally when casual, even confused, readers draw the wrong conclusions from articles they've written or edited. The fact that other journalists, or insiders in whatever subject they're covering, understand the articles they write is no consolation when average readers come away without a better understanding of the topic.
I thought I was a pretty clear, effective writer once. And then I began writing about science.
It taught me two things:
- Dumb things down too much, and people would "clearly" take away knowledge that was at best incomplete, and in many cases, abstract to the point of misleading;
- Keep it too precise, and no one would understand a word -- except for the people who already understood the subject in the first place.
There's isn't a magic solution to this problem, by the way. Everyone who communicates complex information wrestles the horns of this dilemma, along with many others: brevity, completeness, instruction, summary, cogition, utility. Too basic an approach will bore your audience, but assuming too much understanding in your readers will not only lead to confusion, but cause most people to go do something less frustrating.
In other words, there is no single form of communication that can possibly be effective for all people.
In print communication, we work around this problem by segmenting audiences, providing a few supporting materials (sidebars, photos, tables, graphics) and making some generalized assumptions about the people who will consume what we produce.
But what we usually do in print is what television almost always does. We just avoid complex subjects.
On the Web, it's a bit different. The hyperlink gives us the ability to expand what we write to make it easier for people to get remedial help, or to clarify confusing points. But since most writers don't actively use the medium in this way, most readers don't respond to our writing that way. They don't follow links, or hover over hypertext to see if there's an embedded message there for them. Our browsers don't make much use of these capabilities, either, since readers don't read this way, and writers don't write this way.
Finally, some points about the way we learn.
There's a big difference between adding data to a concept that we already understand and learning a new concept. But if you don't learn the new concept that explains and organizes new data, there's little chance that the new data will do anything but piss you off.
For instance, if you tell me that a new bicycle comes equipped with an 8-speed planetary-geared hub, I'll remember that information without much effort because I've been trained as a bike mechanic. I already have a cognitive bucket for "bicycle gears," and a sub-bucket for "internally geared hubs," and within that sub-bucket there are sub-sub-buckets for "three-geared hubs" and "all other gearing arrangements for internally geared hubs." Give me that info about a new bike with an 8-speed internal hub and I'll retain it easily because I know right where to put it.
But if you've never dealt with this subject, you're more likely to struggle with remembering the new data. What's worse is, because you don't have a cognitive filing system for that new information, you're more likely to store it in the wrong mental bucket. You might not know what an internally geared hub is, and so you'll think "Well, it's just another eight-speed bike. My piece-of-shit Schwinn has eight speeds on the back, and the damn chain fell off every time I tried to shift it! Why would I want THAT?"
Consequently, writers often get frustrated when they describe concepts with tremendous clarity, only to have readers draw the wrong conclusions. But the truth is, the writing isn't always unclear, and the reader isn't always stupid. Very frequently it turns out that the reader doesn't have the right bucket for the information, and the writer didn't figure out a way to help the reader install a new filing system before receiving the information.
The Head First series of books from O'Reilly understands this. It gives people who want to learn new skills congitive buckets and then tricks the mind over and over into developing neural connections to help to retain and actuate new information.
But journalists? We don't do this. We don't do this for a lot of reasons, but one of them is brevity. So we give reader some context and some references, but we're in a hurry to move on. We don't want to bog down. We don't want to be boring. We send our work off to print, and that's that.
In the online world, though, our readers give us feedback. And if your readers are telling you they don't understand, or demonstrate that lack of understanding in their responses, don't go off on them, or despair of your abilities as a writer.
Quick! Get them a better bucket!