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Weekly 3: Remove clutter in your writing & life

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Idea Journal Weekly 3

August 22 · Issue #205 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.


Summary: Aiming for simplicity can help you get your point across and also live a more meaningful life. This issue explores the value of removing clutter.
(~3 min read)

#1. Solve problems in your writing by deleting them
Author and teacher William Zinsser suggests in his book On Writing Well that the best solution to a difficult problem in a sentence is often to simply remove it.
Unfortunately, “it is usually the last one that occurs to writers in a jam.”
Before then, the writer will put the troublesome phrase through all kinds of exertions: moving it to some other part of the sentence, adding new words to clarify the thought or to “oil whatever is stuck.”
But these efforts frequently make the situation worse, and the writer is left with the uncomfortable thought that there is no solution.
When you’re at such an impasse, Zinsser recommends asking yourself: Do I need it at all?
Probably not: “It was trying to do an unnecessary job all along – that’s why it gave you so much grief.”
#2. Respect your reader and cut the bullshit
Author Josh Bernoff points out that all of the advice in his book Writing Without Bullshit is based on a principle he calls the “Iron Imperative”: Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
When you cut corners in your writing and don’t think about the reader’s experience, you’re being selfish. As a result, the reader will get frustrated, likely move on to something else, and your message will fail.
But if you help the reader be more efficient, they will think highly of you and come back to you in the future.
Here are four of Bernoff’s tips to help you follow the Iron Imperative and write more effectively:
1. Put the most important point at the topDid you finally figure out what you were trying to say in your email, article, or report? Put that statement at the beginning.
2. Remove duplication: Reread what you wrote and and ask yourself: Have I said the same thing twice? If so, figure out where it belongs and delete the repeated material.
3. Don’t ramble: Instead of easing the reader into your perspective and supporting points, address them right away. A few examples:
  • Less effective: I had a few thoughts about new features on the way to work this morning.
  • More effective: We need to build in GPS, and here’s why.
4. In an email, match the subject line to the content: Ask yourself: If all they read is the subject line, will I still have communicated something useful? A few examples: 
  • Less effective: Some more thoughts about the release
  • More effective: Why we can’t release the product yet
#3. If you believe life is short, then avoid experiences that waste time
Entrepreneur and Silicon Valley oracle Paul Graham writes that having kids is what finally made him realize that life is in fact short: 
“If Christmas-as-magic lasts from say ages 3 to 10, you only get to watch your child experience it 8 times. And while it’s impossible to say what is a lot or a little of a continuous quantity like time, 8 is not a lot of something. If you had a handful of 8 peanuts, or a shelf of 8 books to choose from, the quantity would definitely seem limited, no matter what your lifespan was.”
Once you know that life is short, arguments in the form of “life is too short for x” are increasingly important.
Graham’s term for the category of things that life is too short for is “bullshit.”
Philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote a long and influential essay in 1986 exploring the nature of bullshit, but Graham offers a characteristically succinct definition: “It’s the junk food of experience.” 
Graham suggests that one way to help distinguish between bullshit and experiences that actually matter to you is to ask the following question: will you care about it in the future?
Quote of the week
“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”
- Designer and technology executive John Maeda in his book Laws of Simplicity
Idea Journal
Idea Journal
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