I make my living by coming up with ideas. It’s a great way to pay the bills. And I’ve been doing it now for so long that the ideas come easily – on walks, in the shower, while reading, etc.
Many of them seem brilliant all the way up to the moment I write them down. Then things can get complicated.
Sometimes, while putting my idea into an essay, a related “great idea” pops into my head. Happy about that, I work it in. But often, when researching facts or examples to support my revised thesis… what I’m finding doesn’t exactly fit. Not wanting to abandon the essay, I plunge on.
Normally, I write at a pace of about 15 words a minute. (Ten for the first draft. Five for the second.) But when this sort of thing happens, it can take me three or four times that long. I used to think that was a good thing. I was wrong.
In fact, as I’ll explain in a moment, working harder on a great idea is usually a sign that it is incomplete, fragmentary, or even specious.
How to Know If Your Great Idea Actually Sucks
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein
You’ve got a brilliant idea. It’s the E=MC squared of whatever you’ve been pondering lately. You rush to memorialize it, to write it down. As you write, your one excellent idea leads to another. And then to a contrary insight – which you include, since it’s relevant. It gets complicated. But you persist. Hours later, you’ve completed a 3000-word essay or memo or proposal. You are exhausted. You save it.
You wake up eager to fine-tune your brilliant idea and send it off to your boss, your colleagues, or your publisher.
So you grab a cup of coffee and begin with enthusiasm. But as you move along, you notice small problems and contradictions. You push on. Hours later, you stop again. “It’s ready to go,” you tell yourself. “I’ll just take one more look tomorrow.”
The next morning, you give it a final read. And when you do, you find more problems and contradictions. You can’t believe how this once-brilliant idea had mutated into a verbal mess. You send it off anyway.
It lands with a thud.
You don’t want to get lost in this depressing, self-flagellating maze. And you don’t have to. There is an easy, one-step way to make sure your brilliant idea is truly brilliant: After you’ve written the first draft, check the FK score.
The FK is a measurement of readability – how easy or difficult it is to understand what’s being said. A higher score means greater difficulty. And, unfortunately, some people believe that greater difficulty means “smarter” or “more technical” or “more profound.”
It means none of those things. What it means is that your brilliant idea is not brilliant. It may have the patina of brilliance. But it’s not brilliant unless it scores 7.5 or below.
Those that haven’t used or aren’t familiar with the FK may doubt my thesis. But those that have successfully brought a first draft that was rated 11.5 down to 7.5 or below understand what I’m saying.
When I’m writing passionately about some new idea, I feel like I’m onto something big and important. I feel that my life has purpose, and this essay is going to prove it. But if I check the FK and it is above 7.5, I know immediately and for sure that my brilliant idea sucks.
It sucks because my idea, however amazing I felt it was, is not brilliant at all. It may very well have a kernel of brilliance. But as expressed, it’s complicated and confounding. It’s a burden to read. It doesn’t inspire. It doesn’t enlighten.
In the Poetics, Aristotle argued that the most important element in a play is not diction or character or even action. It is plot. That usually surprises people. It seems like plot should be the easiest part of writing any work of fiction. But if you’ve ever tried to write a play or a short story or a novel, you know that plot ain’t easy. That’s why writers that can write good plots are so rare. And that’s why they make a lot of money.
Aristotle didn’t say anything about nonfiction – which, of course, includes business memos/proposals and essays. But if he had, I’d bet he would have said that the most important element of nonfiction is the idea behind it… followed closely by how clearly the idea is expressed.
In other words, there is a direct relationship between the quality of the idea and the complexity of its expression. That relationship is an inverse one.
And that’s where the FK comes in.
The best ideas, as Einstein repeatedly reminded us, are simple. Simple ideas are better than complex ideas for two reasons: They are easier to understand and appreciate. And – and this is the wonderful irony that Einstein, among many great thinkers, pointed out – they are also, usually, more profound.
I have found this to be true for the dozens of books and thousands of essays that I’ve written. I’ve also found it to be true of the ideas I have introduced to my business clients over the years.
And that is why whenever one of my “great ideas” gets a high FK score (above 7.5), I don’t send or publish it. I think it through again to see if there might be a simpler way to explain it that is also true. If I can’t find that simpler expression, I conclude that my “great idea” only felt great.
(Note to clever readers: You don’t have to run this essay through your readability program. I just did it for you. It has an FK of 6.2.)
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