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Simplicity is good

The image is from an excellent blog post by Shane O’Leary, which you can read here.

[Update: My friend Chris Phin, who is an editor and therefore always right, has pointed out that I am of course describing practical writing here, not writing as an art form in its own right. I’d better clarify that before I get picketed by poets.]

Most writing exists for a reason, and that reason is usually to share information. The information might be a warning, or it might be advice, or it might be how to do something. The writer’s job is to share that information in the right way. The right way is usually to simplify it, simplify it, and then simplify some more.

Sometimes we get it wrong by accident. If you’re immersed in a particular world you may have a knowledge and a vocabulary that people outside that world don’t. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using jargon or relying on concepts that you understand but that your readers might not. It’s an honest mistake and we all do it.

Sometimes, though, it’s deliberate. It’s the writer deciding that the message they really need to communicate is “I am clever!” or “I have read a book!”

And that’s where terrible writing comes from.

I recently read a live review that said:

They have appeal and they appeal to us. Through the sociologically objective to the psychological subjectivism of introspection: Moving from the political protest to mind games of the self.

That’s not writing. That’s not even typing.

Writing is usually there to do a job, to answer a question: how do I make this work? What did the government decide today? What do you think about this topic? Should you see this band if they’re playing near you?

Answering those questions doesn’t mean you must write in a boring way. But it does mean that you must answer the question you were asked, not the question you wish you had been asked. For example, a live review is supposed to answer the question “what was the gig like?” and perhaps tell you if you should get tickets for the next date.

Good writing needn’t be dull writing. Here’s the late Douglas Adams describing spaceships.

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way bricks don’t.

That’s very simple writing, but it’s doing a ton of work. It’s a joke, of course. But it’s also a very effective description. These aren’t the sleek, silvery spaceships of most speculative fiction. These are bricks. Awful ships. Tedious ships. Ugly, utilitarian, unloveable ships. These are the sort of ships you get when you’re English, in England, in the 1980s. The kind of spaceships your local council would commission. Spaceships that probably close for no reason every third Wednesday. Spaceships full of traffic cones and No Ball Games signs.

All that in just 13 words.

And of course, there’s the famous probably-not-by-Hemingway six word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

These are from fiction, of course. There isn’t as much room for humour or imagination in more everyday kinds of writing. But you can still say an awful lot without very many words. For example:

Signs are a great example, because their job is to impart information in the simplest possible way. This sign doesn’t have time for big words and lyrical flourishes. What is dangerous, and why should you keep out? We don’t have time for that! There is danger! You must keep out!

Alliterate by all means. Sprinkle metaphors like malt vinegar on the crinkle-cut chips that comprise your copy. Demonstrate your vocabulary with sesquipedalian style. But never forget that your words are there to do a job, and if they don’t do that job then you’re wasting everybody’s time.

As the Swedish popsters Roxette once put it: don’t bore us, get to the chorus!