Remove the obvious and the meaningless – replace it with the meaningful.
Simplify your writing better than ChatGPT could do
If you’ve ever attended my courses, you know that I design step-by-step methodologies for every topic that I teach. I try to make them so precise and automated that they work like ‘algorithms’. Of course, they’re never perfect. With one exception.
There is a simple, yet powerful algorithm to reach simplicity. It works for articles, proposals, talks... And ChatGPT will not be able to do as well if you apply it properly.
I discovered it when browsing through the reviews of a book called The Laws of Simplicity, by the web design pioneer John Maeda. For those who are old enough to remember, he was the guy who first created screen savers in which a bunch of rays bounce across the screen. Rings a bell?
John Maeda by Robert Scoble
All reviews of his book more or less said the same thing: “John Maeda hasn’t followed his own advice, and the book is not simple to read, BUT chapter 10 is great”. As you can imagine, I was very intrigued and bought the book just for this single chapter. I’m glad I did, because it completely changed my teaching. Chapter 10 presents... an algorithm for reaching simplicity. It’s based on 3 principles that we might call the “Maeda principles”. Here it goes:
• Remove the obvious
• Remove the meaningless
• Replace them with the meaningful.
As you read this, you’re probably scratching your head, so I’m going to illustrate this algorithm with the example of a CV.
How the algorithm works for a CV
CVs are probably the best example to show the power of the algorithm, because most academics reuse templates that were designed in spite of common sense – they simply look like a catalog. Judge for yourself. Here’s the first step: removing the obvious.
1) Remove the obvious from your CV
There are probably many things you can remove from your CV because they're obvious. It will make your CV look much less cluttered and much easier to read.
For starters, you don't need to write ‘Curriculum vitae’; it's pretty obvious it's a CV.
Also it's obvious that email@example.com is your email address; you don't need to specify ‘email: john.smith…’ Same with ‘phone number’, ‘address’, ‘contact details’, etc.
But plenty more things are obvious – for example, if you’re applying for a job in Canada and live in Toronto, you don’t need to state that Toronto is in Canada. And if you have a PhD, you don’t need to mention ‘Analytical skills’.
So carefully prune your CV for what’s obvious. Let’s move on to the next step, removing what’s meaningless.
2) Remove the meaningless from your CV
People cram their CV with an incredible number of details which are meaningless for recruiters. For example:
- the months during which you were employed ("it was a cold and windy December month …");
- that you can use Microsoft Office (No kidding?! You've got a PhD …) or a basic lab technique (unless it's requested by the job ad);
- the precise title of your thesis or presentations – sorry, but no one cares;
- where you studied before your BSc - unless you want to show you've studied abroad. Then make it clear.
There are so many useless details in most CVs that it’s a miracle anyone can actually understand why they should hire you. (Reality check: they can’t). If you stop for a moment to think about it, I’m sure you’ll already find many more meaningless things to prune out.
3) Replace the obvious and the meaningless with the meaningful in your CV
What's most meaningful for the recruiter? Can you guess? Yes, the keywords of the job ad. So please rewrite your CV, using these keywords as section headings. For example, if they want someone who's worked with clients, you can put your stint folding up T-shirts for Primark under a neat section ‘Customer service’.
Here are other elements of the CV that are meaningful for the employer (I’m taking the example of a CV to get a non-academic job, but the same principles apply for an academic job):
Get it? So think carefully of what’s meaningful for the recruiter and add it to your CV. There should be ample space for it once you’ve removed all the obvious and meaningless.
Now let’s see a quick example.
CV before applying Maeda's algorithm
Here’s a CV before applying the algorithm (we’ll only work on the beginning of the CV).
John MarblerCONTACT DETAILS
Telephone: +353 44 789 24
Address: 453 pine tree stree, Toronto, Canada
Oct 2000-Dec 2002: First Walk primary school, Missassauga, Canada
Simplified CV after applying Maeda's algorithm
Lab manager, 3 years’ experience
Mobile internationallyJohn Marbler
+353 44 789 24, firstname.lastname@example.org, Toronto.
2021-present: Research Manager, Toronto University (manages a lab of 15)
Et voilà ! Although I only show the first few lines, I hope you can see how much more meaningful and pleasant the second CV is to read. Now go back and have a look at your CV – I’m ready to bet anything that your name is larger than the CV’s title (unless your CV has no title, which is even worse). Do write to tell me if I’m right at email@example.com 😉.
In future posts, I will show other examples of how Maeda’s simplification algorithm applies to funding proposals, scientific articles, paper figures, and talks.
Wishing you fruitful research.