Latest Information:
Krulwich Wonders...
10:46 am
Mon November 19, 2012

Why Not Say It Simply? How About Very Simply?

Originally published on Tue November 20, 2012 11:27 am

There are people (and I hear from them constantly) who think if a subject is sophisticated, like science, the language that describes it should be sophisticated, too.

If smart people say torque, ribosome, limbic, stochastic and kinase, then the rest of us should knuckle down, concentrate and figure out what those words mean. That's how we'll know when we've learned something: when we've mastered the technical words.

I beg to differ. Fancy words are nice if you're feeling fancy. But suppose all you want to do is understand how something works. The technical vocabulary would let you talk to other technicians, but if you're just exploring for yourself, if all you want to do is get comfortable with the complexity, you don't need expert words; you need words that translate easily, words that make personal sense to you.

As Simple As It Gets

That's why I love this "explainer" from Randall Munroe, author of the Web comic xkcd.

Last week he decided to describe the world's heaviest, tallest, most powerful rocket — the Saturn V, built by NASA — the one that sent 24 astronauts to circle or land on the moon. The Saturn V is a tower of technical complexity, but Munroe decided to annotate his drawing using only "the ten hundred words people use the most often." In other words, he kept his language simple.

Ridiculously simple.

So "NASA's Saturn V" becomes US Space Team's Up Goer Five.

"Up Goer" — as in "rocket." Nouns that we now think of as ordinary — cargo bay, capsule, lunar module — are Sesame-Streeted into aggressively lowbrow forms, and you know what? The innards of the rocket are suddenly clear, transparent. This works!

(Well, I think it does.)

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that this is technical writing at its best. No fancy words. Nothing very "meta." But accurate. Clear as a bell. Friendly. And effective. Journalism schools should make students go Deep Simple at least once a semester.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.