Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

25 Oct 2018, 12:03 p.m.

The Concision-Nuance Tradeoff In One-To-Many Documents

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2018 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

It's tough to balance the need for concision with the need for spelled-out nuance in factual documents. Dating profiles, CVs, job descriptions, release announcements, grant proposals, values statements, codes of conduct, service notifications, news stories, product labels..... in one-to-many static communications, every member of the audience arrives with slightly different context and varying levels of reading comprehension and patience. And as the "Fresh Fish Sold Here" joke goes, you'll get inconsistent feedback from your critics about whether you've struck the right balance. I have faith that, in every such document category, there exist people with the skill to -- mostly -- design that user experience well. I'm curious to learn more about how to do that, in the document types I write (like emails, blog posts, and conference talks), and how to appreciate it in the documents I consume.

In this BBC News story, "We've developed this new format to try to explain the story to you better." You can select whether you want the short or the long version of an answer to a question like "Where is Xinjiang?" I like it -- not least because it means I can read the summary first, then remember that overview as I go deeper.

What can you communicate in a job description? Detail, transparency, expectations, team, mission -- but designing the reading experience so it doesn't feel overwhelming is its own feat. It's particularly disheartening to try to provide concrete examples of kinds of optional skills the employer values, to inspire a feeling of invitation, and then to find that some applicants read that as an intimidating list of must-haves or buzzwords. I'd like to get better at this and there is probably a class I could take or a framework I could adopt.

If you are a voter in New York City, here's the voting guide for the election on November 6th (you should have received a short paper version in the mail). Here's an overview of the three ballot proposals (I believe each proposal has a one-paragraph explanation that is "The official text of the question as it will appear on your ballot"). For each proposal, the title links to -- the example here is Proposal 2 -- the "plain language summary prepared by the CFB based on official abstracts provided by the CRC" (a few paragraphs) and several individuals' statements, 1-2 paragraphs each, supporting and opposing the proposal, "based on statements ... at CRC public hearings, in the press, and in submissions to the CFB." There are "abstracts" (2-5 pages each) for each proposal that go into more depth on cost, specific rules, edge cases, and so on -- this statement solicitation page links to all of them, here's the abstract for Proposal 2, and here's all of them together.

But what's the context and reasoning for these proposals? Well it comes out of the 2018 New York City Charter Revision Commission which delivered a report, 147 pages long, explaining why they're suggesting these three changes, and what other issues we should consider addressing in the future.

Is that the right balance? Is this a good set of stair-stepped documents giving citizens as much engagement as they want, at the pace they can handle? I don't know. It worked for me and the friend (we spent an hour researching voting choices together), although it was a little harder than I'd have liked to find those links.

I'm a better writer than many, but this is someplace I can improve, and so I'm noodling around thinking about it.