Effective Writers Savor Simplicity
The dead horse of simple writing has been beaten ad nauseum — I just want to make sure it’s dead. So I’ll make a case for simplicity again because, if you’re like me, knowing something is not the same as doing it.
Especially in writing. Tell me to write something simply, and I tend to fill pages with long sentences, unnecessary words, and complex jargon.
It’s as if the default mode of the writer is to create words in excess, and only by editing and decluttering the needless noise can we consider a piece polished.
This is the writer’s dilemma: write enough to explain, but don’t dare write one word too many. Oops, I may be doing it right now.
Because, when we write, we want sentences, paragraphs, and pages to be rife with our words. We want them to shine and sing and tell the reader how learned we and our lexicons are.
This is also a problem of clutter.
Of course, there’s a place for this in fiction and prose, where writing is done to entertain more than to inform. Clutter, clutter, everywhere — but look how clever, clever these words are!
And this problem can be generalized. The author of On Writing Well, William Zinsser, addresses the clutter problem specifically:
“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
I’m constantly tempted to fill each sentence with dense fluff and “pompous frills.” Yet, knowing about it doesn’t always seem to matter — the G.I. Joe Fallacy still haunts me.
Simplicity, therefore, is a writing tool whose use is worth reiterating and remembering. Simple writing is effective writing.
Keep it simple
I’m convinced that my entire academic career is responsible for the “meaningless jargon” that I still feel compelled to include in my writing.
And it’s like a magnetic pull towards “pompous frills” keeps me weighed down while I write. Despite my awareness of this tendency, simple writing is still elusive. I’ll explain.
When writing a paper for a college class, the unspoken truth is that your “audience” will most often be your professor. And your writing quickly becomes an exercise to impress them. Using academic jargon and filler is par for the course. How else will you meet that word count?
Only a couple of courses in my college career taught me that simple language should be sought when writing. Instead, most of them usually instilled — if indirectly — the opposite: fluff things up to fill a page and meet the word count, then show the professor or teacher that you know their subject, so well, by sprinkling the relevant jargon throughout.
Writing this way makes the whole process a practice of pomp. And it degrades the writing by making it inaccessible to anyone but the professor or teacher.
Though we might think that our words sound wonderful, our paragraph-sized points are sometimes best expressed by a single sentence. Zinsser makes this point clear with an example:
“The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple — there must be something wrong with it.”
So keep it simple. Your point can often be made with a few words, and you’re probably not impressing anybody.
Why simplicity wins
The man or woman snoozing in a chair with a magazine or a book is a person who was being given too much unnecessary trouble by the writer.” — William Zinsser
When we overuse words, our chances to confuse the reader increase. We may think that we’re doing the reader a service by providing them an abundance of language to make use of.
But that’s the thing: not all of our words are useful. This sentence will serve no purpose but to reiterate and confuse the reader by explaining, once again, that not all words in a sentence are useful, and that most of them might even make a point harder to follow because of all the words used to make the point serve only as clutter — plus, the length of the sentence doesn’t give the reader a break and will likely induce a boredom coma so that we find, soon enough, the reader or “the man or woman snoozing in a chair.”
It’s our duty as writers to give the readers something easy to digest. No writer wants to learn that their readers were lulled to sleep by their words.
So we need to learn the art of simplicity. And like all things, it’s a matter of practice — practice decluttering your work by removing the words that aren’t doing any work, or the ones that repeat themselves.
Be careful to construct sentences with a purpose. And remember more of Zinsser’s words:
If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough.
Some simple tips
It’s easy for me to tell you to write simply. Hell, it’s easy for me to tell myself that I need to. Easier said than done, as usual.
Even Zinsser oversimplifies when we ask what we can do to declutter and simplify our writing:
“The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”
Though the advice is sound — and true — it doesn’t tell us how we can go about doing it.
So I’ll give you four tips to simplify your writing.
- Shorten your sentences. A waxing sentence is one whose complexity increases. This makes it more difficult for the reader to follow and is usually unnecessary to get your point across.
- Cut out complex words. Complex vocabulary is sometimes necessary. But if a word has a simpler counterpart, one likely to be recognized by a wider audience, use it. Remember that you’re not writing for your professor.
- Break up those paragraphs. A long paragraph is like a long sentence: it’s complexity increases. It becomes less accessible to the reader and therefore less informative. Information is best digested in smaller bites.
- Try to find the logic in a sentence. Any given sentence shows and tells something. Let that information be a guide to the next sentence, then the next, and so on. Try to find the flow of simple, but informative, sentences.
These few tips are by no means universally applicable. For example, the simplicity, as I’ve presented it in this article, comes primarily from a nonfiction perspective.
Fiction writing, too, can become convoluted in the same way. But the rules are a bit different in that domain, which is good to keep in mind. Fiction is often purposely filled with “pompous frills” as a means to entertain the reader, or as an expression of a particular character in a story.
You get it.
Here’s another thing to keep in mind. I’m not a master of this craft. I have yet to perfect the art of simplicity, and I’m not sure if I ever will, because I’ll always be a developing writer. I’m in the process of implementing simplicity for myself. And I’ll strive to become better and better, and strive to establish expertise, eventually. But I’m excited for the journey that will get me there.
The writer’s craft is rewarding but difficult; simple writing is hard, but it can be learned. If you’re having trouble keeping your craft contained, and your words seem unbound by simplistic rules, don’t worry. There’s probably a place for that in your fiction.
But don’t be discouraged if you’re trying to teach someone something with words, or to tell a true story because with practice you’ll find that simple voice within.
Heed these parting words on writing from Zinsser, who says it best:
“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard it’s because it is hard.”