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Just the Facts, Please

Writers also serve the golden calf of style and are easily seduced into sounding literary rather than writing clearly. Iris Murdoch once said that to be a good writer, you have to kill your babies. Cross out something you might think approaches brilliance because it doesn't belong or doesn't move your point along.

Writers are usually held somewhat in check by considerations of accuracy. Even writers of fiction strive to convey accurately their own inner vision of the world. However, serving the god of accuracy doesn't always translate into understanding. Facts can do just as much to cloud meaning as to clarify it. I believe there is a god of understanding out there, and the god of understanding is not served by just the facts. Facts in themselves make no sense without a frame of reference. They can be understood only when they relate to an idea.


"Designer," likewise, has acquired a new generic meaning that has nothing to do with solving problems, communicating, or exploring ways to fit human needs within the constructs of the physical world. Fraught with negative associations, "designer" now connotes some kind of petty, overwrought exercise in extravagance.

– Akiko Busch, "Designer Vocabulary," Interiors (April 2000)


Ideas precede our understanding of facts, although the overabundance of facts tends to obscure this. A fact can be comprehended only within the context of an idea. And ideas are irrevocably subjective, which makes facts just as subjective. This is why if you serve the exact same meal to 15 people and ask them to describe what they ate, no two descriptions would be alike. Some descriptions will emphasize taste, others smell or texture. There is a tendency to forget that facts are subjective, especially within the news industry, which worships objectivity with the zeal of Shiite Muslims. Try sending 15 reporters out to cover the same fire and see what happens. Based on their own understanding of the world and the influences under which they operate, each reporter will recognize certain details and miss others. They will report on the event through the context of their own understanding, which will determine what they choose to emphasize or omit. The pitfalls and seductions of writing and graphic design apply to anyone trying to understand or communicate information.


Don't be too certain of learning the past from the lips of the present. Beware of the most honest broker. Remember that what you are told is really threefold: shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale.

– Vladimir Nabokof


Accuracy, in itself, is not the means to making things understandable. Once you realize that absolute accuracy is impossible, you can be more relaxed and comfortable with your own choices as to the level of detail and to the point of view. The key to understanding is to accept that any account of an event is bound to be subjective, no matter how committed the recounter is to being accurate and objective. Once you accept that all information comes to you filtered through the point of view or bias of someone else, somehow it will be less threatening, and you can begin to understand it in perspective and to personalize it, which is what enables possession (the stickiness of the information).


In my upcoming TOP books, Diagnostic Tests for Men & Diagnostic Tests for Women, I use a diagram of the human body as an index to medical tests.


Figure 2

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