These days you read a lot about simplifying your life. You know, determining what’s really important and dumping the rest be it ill-fitting shoes, “toxic” individuals, rat-race jobs, gas-guzzling vehicles, and other excesses. I’m of a certain age, so I buy into this idea for the most part. Just yesterday I was upstairs going through my closets and drawers, bagging up the stuff I haven’t worn in months. Or longer. I was ruthless, even my old Beauty and the Beast t-shirt purchased on my 1993 Disney World honeymoon went. (FYI – Tom took me to see the movie when it first came out back in 1991. It’s still my favorite “princess” movie.) Sentimentality can be a vice when you know you have to move your household 2000 miles in two years. Do you have any idea what that’s going to cost us?
Frankly, writing often demands that we “go” simple too. The point of writing, whether we’re talking inter-office memos, novels, automotive manuals, or tweets, is to communicate something to someone. So often we add extra “stuff” that’s just not pertinent to our message thereby muddying the waters and potentially leaving readers confused as to what we’re trying to say. Today I offer you the advice and admonitions of various authors regarding simplicity in writing.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. From Elmore Leonard. I agree wholeheartedly. As a reader, I like the challenge of creating the picture in my mind. Give me the basics; don’t spoon-feed your story to me.
- Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. Also from Elmore Leonard. Pretty self-explanatory, yes?
- Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon…But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. From William Zinsser. This is especially true of business writing and the writing we do for educational purposes. Authors of fiction, feel free to embellish your words as needed.
- One should use common words to say uncommon things. From Arthur Schopenhauer. Ever try to explain death to a kid? The most difficult ideas should be expressed as simply and as clearly/cleanly as possible.
- Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite. From C.S. Lewis. Use the word that makes the best sense please.
- When you wish to instruct, be brief… Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind. From Cicero. We’ve all had a teacher or professor who loved the sound of his or her own voice. Remember how difficult it was to determine what was important, what would be on the exam later? Make your point clear.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific term or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. From George Orwell. Okay, if you’re writing a scientific paper, go for the scientific term, otherwise stop showing off!
- Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action. From Kurt Vonnegut. That’s it. If the weather’s unimportant to the story, leave it out!
- Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very[;]” your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. From Mark Twain. This applies to many, many adverbs and adjectives. And the word “just.” Don’t dilute what you’re trying to say with extraneous words.
- Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. From Stephen King. Sentimentality – not always good for your moving expenses or your writing.
I must admit, I had fun finding all these quotes. In fact, there were so many, I had to get rid of some (i.e., kill my darlings). I was that afraid of cluttering up your mind with more quotes than was necessary. But simple, clear communication is what The Polished Paragraph is all about. Why beat around the bush when you have something to say? Perhaps Stephen King once again put it best: I figured the shorter the book, the less bullshit.
Thoughts? Are you a “simple” writer, believing that less is more, or do you prefer writing with as much detail and information as possible? Don’t hold back, tell us what you think.