The simplest means of expression is often the grandest of them all.
At core, writing is a labor over choosing the best words to convey our thoughts to someone else. Yet we intensify that struggle, make it figuratively bloody and wretched, when we insert unnecessary complexity into our lines.
Complexity comes in a variety of shades and arises from a variety of pressures. The shades surely we know well: the desire to inflate the language with loathsome, archaic words (in essence, puffery), the forced need to make our sentences wind as long as the Amazon so we pretend to sound smart (you can write long sentences that are wonderful, however), and so on.
The pressures no doubt we have all encountered too: the desire to sound smart, even though we end up sounding stupid, the desire to write lines that contain variation (a noble sentiment, but one that can destroy us), and the idea passed along by fools that plain writing (also known as concise and clear writing) is bad writing.
We must pitch the necessity of tattooing our sentences with complexity and the irrational pressures that I mentioned here — in addition to a multitude of other unmentioned reasons, pressures, and “necessities” — overboard. And we should watch, with glee, as it sinks to the bottom of the sea.
The best writing is the simplest, truest writing, writing that clearly explains/describes/reveals the concepts you wish to convey to others whether you are writing a white paper or a novel.
The first commandment of writing is clarity (or at least my first commandment): clear, crystalline expression of your internal knowledge unto others. That commandment cares little for forced complexity: we will never understand what you are saying if you muddy the message, giving us a swamp of words, a bog, instead of an ocean of knowledge as clear as the Caribbean Sea.
Clarity arises from the simplest means of expression, I repeat, and I don’t mean writing dully or dumbly. Instead, we must find the most precise word (even if it is only one syllable), the most precise sentence structure (even if it is a simple sentence), and the most precise form of expression (even if it is something plain that we can all grasp, including your dog Harry).
We must strive for the simplest means of expression first, before we tumble down into the rabbit holes of complexity. You may find wisdom there, you may find better forms of articulation there, but you may also bring your reader down there with you and end up burying them.
There is no harm in plain English writing, writing that you, I, and your most inarticulate friend can understand. You must take it easy on them, or they will flee as fast as a cat about to be thrown overboard. I love academic papers, reading and writing them. But honestly how many people read them? That erudite language is about as romantic as the bubonic plague — run for your life.
And the simpler and easier the writing is, the freer and less laborious the craft will become for you. Sometimes the most powerful things said on earth were done in little more than 10 words, sometimes less.
But a cautionary caveat to all of what I have written here. Just as we should not be chained to complexity, we also should not be chained to simplicity. The best writing often steps its toes into the pool of complexity, and carries a little bit of that manna into a work of clarity…..while not muddying the waters.
And complexity is not used because of need, because of forces, because of pressure. It is used only when the simplest means of expression is exhausted and the only means to convey the gravity of the situation or the depth of the information is through language of a higher register.
In either case, the first commandment of writing — clarity — is adhered to, always. Otherwise, you’ll numb their minds and most importantly, their hearts.
Tips on How to Write Clearly:
1. Less is more. Omit needless everything. If one word can capture what you are trying to convey, use one word instead of five, six, seven, even ten words. Strike out words with the zeal of a major league pitcher. Always try to be spellbinding in as few words as possible. In fact, you will be more spellbinding if you use as few words as possible (unless you’re William Faulkner). In the first sentence of this point, I originally wrote “less is always more.” Strike. Less is more.
2. If you can write a simple sentence, write a simple sentence (subject + verb + punctuation). See “less is more.” Sometimes a simple sentence is just as powerful as a complex sentence.
3. Use powerful, common, plain English words, especially if powerful, common, plain English words can replace multisyllable monstrosities. Use complex words-concepts only when the use of them is highly necessary, highly unavoidable. Do not use them to sound smart. You will not sound smart (note: big words are OK if deployed naturally and only if they are utterly sensible and entirely unavoidable.)
4. After you write your first draft, revise it, several times. Try to step out of your mind and into the reader’s mind. Can they clearly grasp what you wrote? Can you revise it to make it even clearer, utterly crystalline, no distortion, no noise between messenger and receiver, no room for interpretation or false impressions? Yes, you can. Every first draft is flawed, usually on the grounds of clarity.
5. Precise word choice. Labor over those words. Choose wisely/prudently: lean toward simplicity and words that precisely describe your desire with utmost clarity.
6. And finally, make mistakes. To write with clarity, we must dive and swim among muddy waters. I absolutely violated rules here. Rules are meant to be adhered to and violated. But we don’t become masters without principles, without knowing the fundamentals. Write, throw mud. Then, revise, turn mud into water, and then eventually manna that we will all enjoy.
Contradictory Fodder, Emerson: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.
But still, write clearly.
Suggested Reading: Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (11th Edition)
Stephen J. McConnell is the co-founder of Guiding Type, a content development and internet marketing company based in Denver, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter, @sj_mcconnell.com, or subscribe to his thoughts on writing blog at sjmcconnell.com.
Stephen also recently finished a novel about a sudden collapse in Earth’s environment and finished a screenplay about a United States soldier’s woes in Afghanistan. He is currently seeking representation for both works. In addition, Stephen recently published an eBook on creative writing, In Search of You. Creative Writing: Journey, Style, Method. He has a B.S. in English from Radford University and a M.S. in Writing from New York University.