This is a blog post working through something I want to stamp out of my writing: appeals to nuance.

The key points:

  • You shouldn’t care about nuance - you should care about accuracy and clarity.
  • Don’t present complexity as opposed to simplicity, but explain how it unfolds from it.
  • If something is wrong, be direct as to what and why it matters. There may be serious problems in an ‘unnuanced’ idea, but they’re best described in other ways.

Kieran Healy’s article on the problems of Nuance in sociology talks about three key problems with how it is used in that field:

  • Nuance is not a feature of good theory - abstraction is kind of the point of theory and calls for a theory to address every single feature are “unproductive blocking” of what might be partial, but useful theory.
  • Nuance is not necessarily a feature of “interesting” theory - many interesting ideas may be quite blunt.
  • Nuance is not likely to produce influential theory - on strategic grounds, there is value in not getting lost in the weeds.

While it’s all locked up a bit in academic-language, these critiques generalise to a lot more writing - including mine! Here is my current thinking.

Nuance is not a virtue in itself, but only when it is in service of clarity and accuracy. Nuance isn’t bad but appeals to the need for nuance in all circumstances are. There is no inherent value in complexity and it is too easy to appeal to a generic need for nuance. It is harder to clearly explain what the specific problem with the lack of nuance is in this case. If you can do this, then you probably don’t need to talk about nuance at all.

There is a tension between clarity and accuracy to be navigated, with trade-offs in both directions. Simple explanations saw off details. But too much focus on edge cases inflates their relative importance compared to simple explanations. The really hard job in writing is walking the correct line between these two goals, to the service of the purpose of the writing (note: ideally figure out what this is).

It is always possible (and true) to say it’s more complicated than that - but this in itself adds little. What this is implying is you are a more subtle and sophisticated thinker than what you’re critiquing. Maybe you are, and that’s exactly what you want to imply! But there’s no value in being a subtle and sophisticated thinker if you can’t explain why this is important. And if you can, you can do it without the sideswipe (unless you want to of course).

Appeals to complexity can make a topic seem hard to approach, by suggesting only people who have fully absorbed the complete subject matter can have an opinion on a topic. This is probably the opposite of what you intend. People don’t need to know as much about you to have an opinion, they just need to read your great writing on the subject. In this way, appeals to complexity suggest a redraft is needed.

The first draft may be the story of the different layers of knowledge and reversals (telling the story of your journey), but the second draft should always be clear about what the simplest description of the most true thing is. The reader should be able to stop, understand what you meant to say, and with an understanding that is mostly true, at any point. Complexity should unfold from simplicity, rather than be presented in opposition to it.

In short, nuance: not good, not bad - just unimportant. It’s not the road in itself to good or impactful writing, or to helping people understand complicated ideas. Instead, focus on if the writing is striking the right balance between accuracy and clarity.

Header image from ChatGPT