This is something that’s been coming up in conversation and in practice quite a bit recently: what I call Firehose Syndrome.
Some writers, especially those who are writing about something they’re really passionate about, totally geek out. They try to show off every little last thing they know about their subject, using technical jargon, theory, dozens of citations, complicated diagrams, and obscure statistics.
It’s perfectly natural—you’re excited about your subject, you know it’s important, and you want to show that you know your stuff so that people will take you seriously. You want to get all that knowledge into other people’s heads where it can help them.
All too frequently, though, the result is that the reader ends up confused, overwhelmed, or just plain bored.
Most of the time, your reader doesn’t need all the details. It’s like them asking for directions to the supermarket, and instead of just telling them to turn left on Main Street, you tell them the color of every single house they’ll pass on the way.
99% of the time, they don’t want or need that much extra detail—they simply want you to distill your experience into something that they can digest and put to work for themselves immediately.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put in citations where necessary or back up your statements with research and statistics. You should. Information like this not only supports your credibility, it also gives your reader places to go if they want to find out more. But it does mean that you should ask yourself every so often if the information you’re including is really necessary to help your reader achieve his or her goal.
If it’s not, take it out.
Here are three warning signs of Firehose Syndrome:
1. You refer readers to lots of other sources (books, articles, studies, websites, etc.). You should cite your sources, of course, and you can always give readers a bibliography to follow up on if they want to learn more. But if you keep suggesting that they go elsewhere for more knowledge, you not only risk overwhelming them but undermining your own authority as well.
2. You use a lot of technical, scientific, or industry-specific words that your average reader would have to look up. You may need to explain a handful of new terms or concepts, but if you’ve got complex vocabulary on every page, you probably need to simplify. (Remember, though, that this is specific to your audience. A book written for computer programmers can assume an entirely different frame of reference than a book, say, for farmers who raise merino sheep.)
3. The book seems to just keep growing … If your “quick guide” is turning into “the definitive textbook,” it may be time to regroup and decide if you’re writing the right book.
Things you can do to avoid Firehose Syndrome:
1. Study your audience. Find out what they want. Find out what they don’t want.
2. Have a clear, simple thesis. Make sure everything in your book supports it.
3. Keep it short. Commit to delivering your message in as few words as possible.
4. Work with an editor. Okay, I’m biased, but helping you clarify and simplify is one of the reasons we exist.
Has Firehose Syndrome affected your book or one that you’ve read? Let me know about any experiences in the comments.