The Fifth Discipline: Simplicity

(pace Peter Senge)

"What is the simplest possible statement?"
(Ezra Pound)

A paragraph is a composition of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that says one thing and supports, elaborates or defends it. Before you demand exceptions (which, by the way, I’m happy to grant), do note that this gives you a great deal of room to move. Six sentences that average 15 words each gives you less than a hundred words. That leaves you room for much longer sentences, and significantly more of them. Inverting the units, paragraphs will often be between 100 words and 12 sentences long. This should not feel like a set of constraints but like a space of freedom. Enjoy it.

Let’s recap how we got here. In the evening the day before, you did two specific things. You decided what you wanted to talk about and what you wanted to say. Then, twelve minutes ago, you sat down and spent two minutes getting your key sentence in the right rhetorical posture, making sure that it made a statement that required support, elaboration or defense. You then spent 10 minutes knowing the shit out of it (as the kids say), providing that support, elaboration or defense, writing sentences that made it easier to believe, understand, or agree with. You have 15 minutes left in your writing moment.

The fifth discipline is simplicity. Your task now is to make sure that your paragraph does what it needs to do with the greatest possible elegance and economy. The preceding ten minutes may well have produced 230 or 250 words. You need to remove some of them to get your paragraph down to the allowed length. (Or, if you insist, you need to earn the length you think you require here. I’ll say more about that at another time.) Often, there will be claims made in this paragraph that you can now see would be best left for another paragraph. Sometimes you will simply have said the same things twice or even thrice, without making the ideas easier to understand. Sometimes you’ve gotten all the right ideas down but in the wrong order, whether logically or temporally. You have ten minutes to fix these issues.

One important thing to look for at this stage is the needless use of technical jargon or pompous verbiage. Remember that your reader is an intellectual equal. Use words that convey your meaning in a way that you yourself would understand, easily and directly. Make sure that technical terms in your writing serve the specific purpose they were designed for. In a given paragraph, they may be used only once or twice. Also, remember that scientific language is mostly ordinary language with some added jargon that labels the switches and dials of specialized equipment. At the end of the day, you’re telling your reader what you did and what you saw. In most cases, if there is a plain-language way of saying something, that’s the one your reader will prefer. A good test here is: is it the one you would prefer?

In any case, you have ten minutes. That is, you’re giving yourself as much time to simplify your language as you did to gather your materials. I should say, however, that I’m not suggesting you time yourself very strictly; if you spend a little longer on the fourth discipline than the fifth, that’s fine. But keep the two of them together at 20 minutes, otherwise you’ll find yourself pressed for time for the last two things you need to do. But giving yourself specific amounts of time for each task, even rough amounts, is a good way to free yourself up to work on the discipline as such, without mixing in other concerns. You want to be able learn from the experience. Also, you’re always working on “discipline zero” — the art of stopping and moving on to the next thing. Don’t get stuck.

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