Struggling to grasp a paragraph? 'Non-linearity'...

Ever read one or two paragraphs and wondered why they seem a bit tough to grasp? On the surface, they seem OK – short words, short sentences, etc – but something’s not quite right.

In which case try this: analyse linearity. Alongside each bit within the paragraph(s), write a single word that describes the topic it covers. Do this, and you more clearly see just how many twists and turns the words force you to take. Let's give an example - read this (and it’s about WiT, my alternative to bullets):

“Bullets are often incomplete, but WiT resolves this. In bullets, we omit stuff, and don’t realise it, whereas with WiT, we spot stuff is missing. That’s because bullets give us no clues something’s missing, whereas with WiT, we’ve empty cells. WiT helps ensure completeness.”

Short words, short sentences. Tick. But it makes my head spin a bit. Let’s analyse linearity – its bits are: bullets, WiT, bullets, WiT, bullets, WiT, WiT. Back and forth repeatedly. So rewrite it:

“Bullets are often incomplete – we omit stuff and don’t realise it because bullets give us no clues something’s missing. With WiT, we spot something’s missing because we’ve empty cells. WiT helps ensure completeness.”

Same words, but easier to follow. Fewer twists and turns – its thread is: bullets, WiT. Linear. Not circuitous.

Non-linearity... easy to spot, no? Non-linearity arises for many reasons, but rather than list them, consider this: "Surely it’s easy to spot non-linearity...?” Yes, in lists. No, in continuous text. In fact, it’s so tough to spot, I rarely spot it. Rather, I spot its outcome: I struggle to grasp the words I’m reading. So I analyse linearity. (This happened constantly when I reviewed drafts of my Clarity and Impact book (my book... have I mentioned it in this email?).)

Also, avoid too many twists and turns not just with nouns (WiT, bullets), but verbs too. Read this, it’s a sentence I read in a report: “When respondents view a neutral result as negative, the number of replies that falls below the target rate of 65% dramatically increases as compared to when they view a neutral response as positive”.

Eh?! Readers get taken in different directions too often, too quickly – “… neutral… negative…falls… increases… neutral… positive”. It’s like this scene from the movie Airplane II: “Dunn was under Oveur, and I was under Dunn” (watch the first 40 seconds, it’s great).

Instead, rewrite with fewer directional changes, if any: “When people view ‘neutral’ as bad, we miss our 65% target more often”. Much better.

Bad graph time: OK, let’s lighten things a bit with a bad graph – and like the writing above, it's careless in the directions it takes us…. a survey in Copenhagen found that driving a car one kilometre costs society 89 cents, but cycling one kilometre benefits society 26 cents.

Clear enough, no? Not if you’re the UK broadsheet The Guardian. It created an infographic - 26 green icons in one column, 89 amber icons in another.

But both columns go up. The green column goes up to show benefits – and the amber one also goes up… to show costs. Yet in graphs, the height difference between columns helps us grasp data (apparently…), yet here, one column is 63 icons bigger than the other (89 minus 26), when it should be 115 icons bigger (89 plus 26). Utterly nuts. With thanks to Ed Leighton for sending it to me.


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