Producing clear writing is an essential skill. Yet, many people feel their writing isn’t clear enough, and struggle to improve that skill. In this article I would like to share my learning of a method that can help you write more clearly – a method called The Pyramid Principle (“TPP”).
It’s easy to use
The core idea of the Pyramid Principle is to structure the ideas you want to convey into a pyramid structure, which means putting ideas into different groups and levels so that: 1. each group supports the idea immediately above it, and 2. each level up represents a higher degree of abstraction. Below is an illustration of a pyramid’s components and a simple example.
There are two simple rules in creating the pyramid for your writing.
First, apply the 7 steps (with 6-7 repeatable) in order, as shown in the illustration above.
- Write down the subject about which you want to write.
- Write down what you think is the question about that subject that you need to answer for your reader.
- Write down your answer to that question.
- What is the Situation that the reader is in, that makes this question relevant?
- What is the Complication developed in that situation, that directly raises the question? Does the given Complication in the given Situation raise the given Question? If yes, then you know you’ve found the right question to address!
- Once you tell your reader what your answer is, what is the follow-up question that immediately raises in their mind?
- Answer that follow-up question in the level below.
- The reader may have further follow-ups to this new level of answers. Repeat steps 6-7.
This rule will force your entire writing to stay relevant for the reader, as we will see later in this article.
Second, fully support an idea by expanding upon all possible follow-up questions the reader might ask below it, before moving on to another idea parallel to it. You can do so by exhausting all reasonable follow-ups as you repeat steps 6-7. Doing this will reduce the cognitive burden for the reader and make your writing clearer, as we will see later.
Voila — the above is, in my mind, the essence to using TPP to make clear writing. There are of course much more discussion around TPP online, such as the website of the creator of TPP.
Now, I’d like to get to why TPP is a great tool to make writing clear.
Why can The Pyramid Principle effectively make your writing clear?
To answer that, I’d like to first discuss what makes writing unclear. Unclear writing most often results from the writer not taking the time to organize the ideas they write about. Remember, it takes work for one human being to convey their ideas to another: since we can’t telephathize, the communicator must encode ideas into language, and the recipient must decode that language into ideas. For example, if you asked me what do I do as a product manager, in an instant my mind will produce a multi-dimension image that is the idea of what I do, but to replicate that idea in your mind we must resort to language and take longer than an instant.
Since it takes a certain amount of work to convey ideas, the reader will be forced to do extra work when the writer doesn’t do the work (by carefully organizing their ideas into a logical order for the reader’s easy consumption). As an example, most of us would find it easier to write an 800-word personal statement than to further craft it into 200 words, because the former can be produced by letting the mind run free while the latter takes discipline to organize; yet, our readers should find the 200-word version more clear.
Therefore we can see clearly the real cause of unclear writing: when the writer doesn’t do the work to organize their ideas, they shift cognitive burden to their readers — that’s when they label what they read as “unclear”.
Having established that, it’s easy to explain how The Pyramid Principle makes writing clear, by greatly shifting the burden of communication from the reader to the writer.
First, TPP enforces the separation of thinking from writing, by making the writer plan ahead their content organization as they build the pyramid structure. This reserves a dedicated time for the writer to focus on organizing their ideas.
Second, TPP forces the writer to organize ideas in a way logical to the reader (this way is the pyramid structure). It is logical because the reader’s mind can only perceive one sentence at a time, and as they proceed reading, their mind will uncontrollably make associations of those sentences as they appear. If such association can’t be logically made, if one sentence invokes a question in the mind that isn’t immediately answered by the next, cognitive burden builds up and the writing suddenly becomes unclear.
It makes writing more enjoyable
Not only is TPP easy to use and effective in making writing clear, it can also help you enjoy writing
Once you have thought through what you want to write (by building the pyramid structure) and begin writing, a magical thing happens: words seem to automatically flow out of your mind onto your paper or screen, and you are in the “zone”. Remember, creation is always a high form of human pleasure, and when it is unhindered by interruptions because you are using writing only as an expression device and not a thinking device, the sense of enjoyment can be very strong. My personal experience is that what would take me 45 minutes of painstaking writing without TPP can be done in some 35 minutes — 30 minutes dedicated to thinking and 5 minutes writing — that is filled with the sense of creation.
Another way TPP makes writing more enjoyable is by increasing your confidence. I’ll again speak from my experience. If I mix up my thinking process and write process, I would constantly have a sense of uncertainty about where my words are going. I then have a tendency to compensate that lack of confidence with more complicated sentence structures and eloquent words, just to make it seem like I know what I am doing. But when I have built a logical structure for my ideas before beginning to write, I would be so confident in what I have to say that I wouldn’t mind resorting to the most simple sentence structures and vocabulary, because I know my writing will come out clear anyway.