You Can’t Get There from Here

Navigating through a document can be treacherous. You don’t know what hazards may be out there. As you travel through the spaces between words, you are taking your life in your hands. Will your energy be drained away by disorganized or dense writing? Take heart—help is on the way.

How to find your way through the words (a survival guide)

When travelling through documents, there are three critical hazards that you may encounter:

  1. Arriving at the wrong destination
  2. Getting lost on the way
  3. Freezing in the face of obstacles

In the event that one of these things happens to you, follow the procedures below. I guarantee you will survive!

Arriving at the wrong destination

You need to find a piece of information. You’ve identified a likely heading, and you run through the start-up sequence. With your destination locked, you step through the portal. But instead of arriving at the treasured Temple of Knowledge, you find yourself entering the Land of the Confused. Your Stargate scientists have messed up again. And now you can’t get back!

Stargate Dialing Sequence - Locked

Stargate Dialing Sequence. Source: SGC.Alex on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The important thing is not to panic. Look around you and see if you have the materials to build any of the following:

  • An accurate table of contents with meaningful, consistent titles
  • An overview that summarizes the topics in the order that they appear
  • References to the locations of related items (your standard toolkit should have what you need to make hyperlinks)

If you can create any of these, then all may not be lost. Keep track of your rations and get moving, soldier!

Getting lost on the way

You know that your destination is the right one. All you need to do is fly through hyperspace from your current jumpgate to the next. Your path has been clearly laid out. But while you are moving through hyperspace, you collide with an unrelated sentence that damages your attention span. Or you are sucked into a gravity well of rambling thoughts that are putting you to sleep. Babylon 5 Control should never have sent you that close to Jupiter!

Babylon 5 pilot

Don’t worry – you’re going to be okay!

Remember your training and take action:

  • Aim for paragraphs that cover a single idea
  • Look out for an opening sentence that introduces the topic of that paragraph and focus on it
  • Destroy all sentences that do not directly relate to that topic

Get back on the right path and fly on, pilot!

Freezing in the face of obstacles

It happens to everyone. You are speeding your way through the galaxy, and then suddenly you run into a wall of large and confusing word asteroids. You don’t want to damage your ship. But sometimes you need to take a risk and move on through. Otherwise you might as well give up the fight and let the Empire win!

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Asteroid Field

From Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Use your ship’s capabilities to get through the obstacles:

  • Launch your missiles and split large asteroid words into smaller ones
  • Use your tractor beam to pull apart dense text clusters and create white space on the page
  • Ask your ship’s computer (or that annoying protocol droid) to come up with alternative words that are not a threat

Now fire up that hyperdrive and go win the day!

Congratulations! You have found your way through the words of a hazardous document. Hopefully you have suffered minimal damage. Remember these tips for next time, and plan ahead before you start your journey!

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Have you ever read something that you just couldn’t get through, or struggled with how to organize your own writing? Share your stories below…

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10 thoughts on “You Can’t Get There from Here

  1. I used to work in the terrible tangled hyper-realm of public sector bureaucracy. Nothing put me off course half as badly as someone more senior but less expert insisting that they knew the route through the words better than me, and that I had to use their phrasing. Sometimes learning to stand up to Admiral Jargonagain is half the battle.

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    1. Ah, the public sector! I have never worked in it, but I have heard stories. It’s funny how large organizations can officially support plain language writing, but then struggle to implement it in reality.

      I have experienced a document needing to be approved by eight different people who all had their preferred sentences. Most of them were more convoluted than the original. Admiral Jargonagain lurks everywhere!

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