Explain at various lengths

One sentence

This article explains itself at various lengths to demonstrate a common communication technique.

Two sentences

There’s a tradeoff between the accessibility of short explanations and detail of long explanations. Essays can get the best of both worlds by doing it both ways, and this essay is an explicit example.

One paragraph

If you’ve ever written essays on the internet, you have likely been disappointed to learn how few people read your words carefully. You can either get upset about it, or learn to account for it. Different readers have different degrees of investment, and you want them all to come away with something. Having multiple explanations of different lengths makes your main point accessible to everyone, while also rewarding those who pay closer attention. Although this is a common essay structure, we don’t always think about it, so this essay explores the structure by way of direct example and discussion.

Three paragraphs

One of my major goals as an essayist is to explain difficult concepts in an understandable way, while sacrificing little complexity. In this way, I give myself impossible tasks, like explaining no-go theorems in quantum mechanics, or explaining how race is constructed in different cultures. And I do all of this on the internet, where people have notoriously short attention spans, because there is so much other internet to look at.

Nonetheless, there are techniques for explaining the impossible. One technique starts with the realization that some people only read the first and last paragraphs, some people only read the first few sentences, and some only read the title. Each of these parts of the essay should summarize the main point, and provide detail as space allows. Often, the length of the explanation dictates what kind of detail is provided. A sentence merely states the thesis. A few lines or paragraphs might explain the motivation. Many paragraphs will include details for people who are unconvinced or want to learn more. In this way, essays repeatedly reinforce the main point without feeling repetitive.

Writing explanations of different lengths is a useful technique that accounts for many kinds of readers, and invites each reader to read more. Of course, it does not substitute for other common writing techniques, such as the opening hook, or using a narrative structure. And it’s not a technique I use all the time myself. Nonetheless, it’s a good tool to keep in mind, and use when appropriate.  This essay adopts the gimmick of explicitly labeling each explanation, which serves to make the technique more memorable to both the reader, and myself.

One sentence

I have demonstrated and justified a technique for explaining complex topics, by having a series of explanations of different lengths.


  1. coyote says

    Oh, so this is what you meant by that cryptic comment the other day. Thanks for warning me ahead of time that I wasn’t being vagued, lol.

    Anyway, this is something I want to get better at. Long explanations are easy, but short explanations? Those are tough. So far the technique that (sorta) works for me is to try and isolate the bones within the longer explanation — the sentences I would bold in each paragraph, for example — and then just take the bones. The neat thing about this process I’ve discovered is that, a lot of the time, thinking through this stuff can help me revise and restructure the longer explanation to be more coherent as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *