When the time comes to sit down and work through an explanation, to write down the important points with the intention of making them clear, it can feel daunting.

Often it helps to have a framework or guide that jumpstarts your thinking. Sometimes you need to shake up your approach and see the audience from a new perspective. Recently I discovered a provocative and potentially powerful set of assumptions that may help.

It comes from Dr. Jim Pryor at NYU, whose post Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper is filled with gems regarding explanation and clear communication (which I can’t help but assume is a challenge in academic philosophy). Really, if you have time, read the entire thing.

This section is powerful:

Pretend that your reader has not read the material you're discussing, and has not given the topic much thought in advance. This will of course not be true. But if you write as if it were true, it will force you to explain any technical terms, to illustrate strange or obscure distinctions, and to be as explicit as possible when you summarize what some other philosopher said.

In fact, you can profitably take this one step further and pretend that your reader is lazy, stupid, and mean.

He's lazy in that he doesn't want to figure out what your convoluted sentences are supposed to mean, and he doesn't want to figure out what your argument is, if it's not already obvious.

He's stupid, so you have to explain everything you say to him in simple, bite-sized pieces.

And he's mean, so he's not going to read your paper charitably. (For example, if something you say admits of more than one interpretation, he's going to assume you meant the less plausible thing.) If you understand the material you're writing about, and if you aim your paper at such a reader, you'll probably get an A.

I think this is brilliant and a great way to approach the process of writing in a way that’s understandable. Why? Because it forces us to empathize with the audience and imagine their experience. By asking: “what would a lazy, stupid or mean person think about this?” we can find ways to repackage our ideas into more useful and understandable forms.

That being said, I would like to note that assuming your audience is stupid comes with a significant risk. If you make a subject too simple and dumbed-down too far, you may come off as condescending and that’s a perception that will always work against you. To avoid condescension, don’t look for the simplest words or examples. Instead, think about what is familiar to the audience. It’s familiarity that allows language to fit a specific audience.

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