If you arrange information in a tree of increasing detail, then the reader can consume your information at arbitrary breadth and depth.


On many independent occasions I’ve encountered the idea that “breadth” and “depth” are opposed to each other in the context of writing.

For example, a textbook may provide detailed coverage on a narrow topic or shallow information on a broad topic. Most nonfiction books fall on a spectrum between detail and accessibility.

I don’t think this is a fundamental tradeoff. There are very simple ways to organize information so that it’s accessible in a range of breadths and depths.

  • Abstracts; executive summaries. A research paper typically begins with an abstract summarizing the most important aspects of the paper. An executive summary fills a very similar role in business or government communication.
  • Footnotes. The best nonfiction often has chapters’-worth of material in footnotes and chapter notes. The book is perfectly readable without following the notes, but the notes will often contain rich information benefitting the curious reader.
  • Hyperlinks. A Wikipedia article may mention a topic you are unfamiliar with, but it will usually link to another article on that topic. You’re free to “go down the rabbit hole” by clicking the link, or simply skip over it if you aren’t interested.

These techniques have the following thing in common: they give the reader the option to read at varying levels of detail. They do this by starting at the level of least detail, and providing access to higher levels of detail. These levels of detail exist in a tree. The root presents information in the least detail; detail increases as you move toward the leaves.

Hyperlinks have been a fundamental part of the internet since its earliest days. You could argue that the internet is one big network1 of increasing detail. But I think hyperlinks—or things like them—still have untapped potential for arranging information in a hierarchy of detail. Imagine a blog post of the future that begins as a few sentences, but allows the reader to click on phrases and expose additional sentences of explanation. This could be nested to whatever degree the author desires.

These thoughts also apply to spoken communication in some ways. A good conversation navigates levels of detail in a way that keeps both people engaged. As a grad student I often find myself talking with people who have no concept of “appropriate level of detail”. They’re so immersed in their own narrow research topic that they have difficulty explaining it to colleagues in slightly different areas. Of course, sometimes I’m guilty of this too.

I admire people who can present challenging topics at varying levels of detail. It demonstrates a thoroughness of understanding. This quote comes to mind:

You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.

— Einstein, or maybe Feynman

It also conveys security—you can afford to give simple explanations because you don’t feel a need to impress people with the full brilliance of your god-like knowledge.

\( \blacksquare\)

  1. The internet certainly isn’t a tree. But even a loopy network can serve similar purposes.