Sometime between kindergarten and high school, you might have encountered the Sandwich Project. It’s a classroom exercise often used to teach concepts about programming and robotics. But it’s also a good way to make us think about writing clearly for any purpose.
Here’s how it works. The teacher divides the class into small groups. Each group has to write a set of instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They have to think hard about what to write, because either the teacher or one of the other groups will have to follow the instructions exactly. If it’s not in the instructions, it won’t happen. If it is in the instructions, it will happen as written.
You can see how this might play out. “Get a piece of bread” could mean tearing out a chunk from the middle of the loaf. Tell someone to “put the peanut butter on the bread” and you’ll end up with the whole jar of peanut butter sitting on top of the loaf. If you want someone to open the jar, take a knife by the handle, use the blade to scoop out some peanut butter, and apply it to one slice of bread, you have to say so.
When I did the project many decades ago, my group realized that “put some peanut butter on one slice of bread” could result in a dime-sized dollop sitting on the slice. So we were careful to specify, “spread peanut butter all over one slice of bread.” Naturally, when it came time to execute the instructions, the other group smeared peanut butter on both sides of the slice and on the crusty edges. “All over” means all over.
Keep the image of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the back of your mind when you are writing or editing. Think about how the words will look to a reader who doesn’t already have a complete understanding of what you are telling them. (That should be most of your readers, otherwise why are you wasting their time telling them things they already understand completely?)
It’s tempting to think, “Oh, you know what I mean.” But I don’t know, really. It might be easy to guess what you mean. It might also be easy to guess wrong. The only thing I know is what you wrote. If you write that “I met Gwendolyn and Hortense at her apartment,” I don’t know which person lives there. Maybe it’s obvious to you because you already know that Hortense lives in a van down by the river, but I don’t know that unless you tell me. And if you mentioned it only once, 100 pages earlier, I still might need a reminder.
You don’t have to go overboard. You don’t have to assume the reader is a complete idiot or a robot. Just keep in mind that you have information that the reader doesn’t. Ask yourself if your statements could be read in more than one way.
Then reward yourself with a sandwich.