Do you see the forest or the trees? I can see either, depending on my audience, and therein lies the crux of the task writers face when writing about difficult topics. Making the demanding easy is all about gaining the right perspective.
Turning difficult subjects into easy-to-understand prose is one of my specialties. I’ve written about the intricacies of taxes, gambling, law, politics, PTSD, child abuse and science, among many other topics. In the time I’ve been tussling with confusing issues, I’ve learned that the place I have to start on each story is to decide: Should I focus on the forest or the trees?
A website for folks learning English as a second language notes that the phrase comes from an expression used to describe someone as being “overly concerned with detail; not understanding the whole situation.”
Explanation: Used when expressing that a person is focusing too much on specific problems and is missing the point.
Normally, I don’t like people who can’t see the forest for the trees, but when you’re writing about a complex topic, you have to first examine your audience and determine how much detail these folks need and how much they can understand. Consider the example of ooids.
Two years ago I was assigned to interview a geologist about his research. In our first conversation, which was over the phone, I asked him about his research focus, and he replied that he worked on ooids.
I asked him to spell the word, and he kindly obliged.
I asked him to explain it, and this brilliant man gave me an explanation that wasn’t too different from the one you can find today in Wikipedia. I was still utterly and completely bewildered. All I really knew at this point was that ooids were tiny things. I hung up the phone and read some of the scientist’s published papers. I researched ooids online, but nothing made sense until I visited him in his lab and found him surrounded by hundreds of small cylinders that were filled with sand. In his lab, he talked about his work analyzing the beaches of the Bahamas and studying beach erosion in the Republic of Kiribati, which is being threatened by rising sea levels.
I blurted out: “You’re a sandologist!”
He smiled. “I guess you could call me that.”
“I don’t want to be insulting, but I still don’t get it,” I said. “Why should I care?”
Lots of reasons, he said. Understanding sand, and a particular kind of particle of sand called an ooid, helps us figure out many things. Most importantly, it helps us understand oolite.
“Huh?” I replied.
Oolite, he explained, is a kind of rock that forms when ooids are buried under additional sediment. Oolite may well be one of the most important rocks in the world today because oolite makes up aquifers, which store groundwater. Oolite is also found in the largest oil fields in the world, like the 1.3-million-acre Ghawar Field in Saudi Arabia.
So here are the trees as explained by Wikipedia:
Ooids are small (< 2 mm in diameter), spheroidal, “coated” (layered) sedimentary grains, usually composed of calcium carbonate, but sometimes made up of iron- or phosphate-based minerals.
Here’s the forest as explained by me:
Ooids are a kind of particle of particle, often found in sand, that is the key component in many of the aquifers that store groundwater and the reservoirs that store oil. Without understanding ooids, we can’t keep our groundwater clean, and we can’t find new sources of petroleum.
Which explanation you should use, however, depends on what audience will be reading your article. My “forest” explanation works well with the general public. The more detailed Wikipedia “trees” explanation works better with geologists. Which approach do you need to take on your next project: The forest or the trees?