Complete, or Incomplete, That is the Question

Would you read half a book? A good book, that is. Would you read a quarter of an article you find interesting? I guess the answer is no. I know I wouldn’t because I, like most other readers, like closure. We don’t want to be left hanging without knowing or understanding what comes next. It is true when reading fiction but equally valid when it comes to non-fiction content. We don’t just seek value; we look for completeness. As an audience, we want to know the bottom line and, in many cases, what leads to it. We don’t like loose ends. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that when I am working on a new piece of content, I try to make it complete. 

Completeness is one of the traits of effective content. Whether you write an article, a book, a lecture, or a presentation at work, you generally want to tie everything together and provide the whole picture instead of fragments of a puzzle. If we provide partial data or skip some logical steps necessary to forming our idea, our audience will likely notice something missing. But while the completeness of our content is critical, it is often confused with sharing everything there is to say about the subject. Our intention to provide a complete thesis can quickly become an overwhelming mass with too many details, nuances, and logical steps that are more likely to confuse the people we communicate with instead of helping them walk the path we wish them to follow. 

When we aim for completeness literally, we are likely to clutter our message with too many details, and our audience will not be able to see the forest for the trees.

In writing, completeness is not a mathematical trait. It is both relative and context-sensitive. The definition of the adjective Complete is “having all the necessary or appropriate parts.” Both necessary and appropriate are not absolute terms, and they require us to address two critical questions: Necessary for whom and appropriate to what end? 

Now, if you expect me to provide a complete answer to these questions, I will have to disappoint you. In that respect, you might argue that this post is incomplete. Hopefully, by the end of this text, you will realize this is not the case. 

Let’s break down the two questions derived from the definition of completeness and consider three things that can affect what we see as complete content. 

What Does Your Audience Care About? 

Your content is designed to serve an audience. A specific audience with specific needs, goals, and knowledge. And while it is not always easy to characterize these attributes, one thing is sure: not all people are alike, and when you aim for someone to read your text, listen to you, or watch your video, you’d better have a good understanding of who is behind the abstract word Audience. The implication is easy to articulate but challenging to implement: your content might be regarded as complete for one audience but fractured and lacking important parts for another. To answer the question “What makes the text complete?” we must know who our audience is and, less importantly, what they care about. 

Your audience is also different from you, complicating things even further. You likely formed your ideas based on more pieces of information, experience, and other resources than your audience cares about. Including all this body of knowledge might seem like it is promoting completeness, but it is more likely to overwhelm your audience and defocus your key message. Your starting point is better than the audience’s, and you probably have more millage with the topic you are writing about. This gap has to be bridged, but for obvious reasons, you will never be able to share everything you know and everything that has led you to your conclusions.

If I were writing a piece about the stormy weather expected this weekend, I’d probably avoid citing every bit of data I have about the barometric pressure, humidity, and global phenomena that I used to model what was about to happen. This data is critical when researching the topic. My audience, on the other hand, might be more concerned about the implications of the weather and not the science behind it. Unless, of course, I am writing for an audience of meteorologists, in which case the opposite is true. 

To make your content complete, you have to know your audience and consider what would be regarded as complete in their eyes. 

What Do You Care About?

Some things are out of the scope of a particular piece of content, even if your audience does care about them. The good news is that it is you who defines the scope of your text. The challenging news is that you’d better align expectations with your audience. 

Not everything you can say about a subject fits into a particular content. When you write, you should think about what your audience aims to achieve, but your goals are no less important. Any piece of content must have a target (I refer to it as The Initiative) that should help you realize your mission. Being complete means the content is designed to promote the Initiative and achieve its target effectively. It rarely means you will meet your mission in that limited scope. 

If you consider this article, for example, you might hope that I will say everything I can about the completeness of content. I’m not, and not because it is not important. If you are reading this, you probably care about effective content and generative communication; completeness is undoubtedly part of it. But, my goal in this article was to introduce the concept of completeness and acknowledge that it is not absolute. This text is part of a more extensive body of work designed to help you (my audience) and I achieve our goals, but I intentionally designed this text to introduce the subject. It was a conscious decision. Not the only decision possible, but my decision nevertheless. When I verify my text is complete, I validate it against the scope I intended for it to cover. 

Naturally, the scope I design is not identical to what the audience cares about. You, as a reader, might want the article to cover a broader or deeper view of the subject. That’s why aligning expectations is crucial. When we deal with a standalone piece like this article, aligning expectations could be challenging. The easiest approach would be to articulate the scope explicitly in advance. I prefer more subtle methods to define the scope implicitly using the title, the subtitle, or the opening segment of the text. For example, the title and subtitle of this article suggest that it is not about how to make your text complete but rather why completeness is a subjective concept. Hopefully, this was enough to set your expectations, even if unconsciously. 

Room for Dialogue 

Completeness is essential, but sometimes, I deliberately choose to leave my content incomplete. When done right, leaving well-designed gaps for your audience to complete can make the text more exciting and engaging; instead of a monologue, your text becomes a dialogue. 

Leaving room for dialogue does not work when it comes to hard data or major logical leaps required to build your thesis. But when it comes to nuances, different ways an idea could be applied, or room for interpretation, leaving room for your audience to imagine and fill the gaps can generate surprising results.

There’s no formula for applying this tactic effectively. It depends on the nature of your text as well as the nature of your audience. Being mindful and sensitive enough to know how to leave adequate space for a dialogue with your audience is more art than science. Letting someone read your text before you publish it can provide invaluable feedback on whether this invitation for discussion works or creates the impression that your content is lacking. 

Here’s my explicit invitation for you: Consider what else could affect the completeness of your text. Think about the different forces that might affect your decision to add or omit some details. When you design your next piece of content, design it so it is complete, but make sure you understand what ‘Complete’ means in that particular context.

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