Simplicity is one key to clarity despite complexity

(or, as Albert Einstein didn't exactly say, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler;" Roger Sessions).

WHY is simplicity important for scientific communication? 

The objective of scientific communication (as one form of technical communication) is to enable an audience to faithfully understand specific information presented by the author. Understanding technical communication can be challenging because people can only process a limited amount of information at any one time (Marois and Ivanoff, 2005). For example, "Miller's Law" hypothesizes that the number of discrete pieces of information that a person can hold in working memory averages 7 +/- 2 (Miller, 1956). However, the capacity of some types of working memory may be even more limited to as few as three elements (Fukuda et al., 2010). Therefore, to faithfully communicate, authors must limit the amount of information presented to audiences at any one time.

Technical communication often involves communicating complex principles or reasoned arguments that can involve a large amount of information. Therefore, to avoid overwhelming audiences with too much information, clear technical communication uses simple frameworks and language (Lebrun, 2011). A useful rule of thumb is:

To present more complex information, use simpler structure and language.

Consequently, scientists and other technical writers consistently work to make their presentations simpler: clearer, more concise, and more accurate. The following sections review WHAT are some general principles that can contribute to simple presentation, and HOW we can simplify scientific writing in practice.

In summary, the concepts, data, and reasoning expressed in scientific writing can all be complex in and of themselves. Audiences must construct their own frameworks to understand the potentially complex ideas that we, as writers, seek to communicate. However, people have fundamental limitations to working memory and attention. Therefore, it is helpful to convey information as simply as possible.

Some strategies that can simplify writing are to limit the number of elements presented at one time (to three or fewer), to use repetition to emphasize and reinforce important ideas, and make sure that information is presented as modules that are self-contained expressions of individual ideas. Several writing strategies can contribute to more simple, understandable text. Reverse-engineering text, using conclusive, informative sub-headings to separate major sections, and constructing paragraphs and sentences that are straightforward representations of singular ideas can all help to simplify writing.