Improving Your Writing by Keeping it Simple

What is simplicity in writing and why is it important?

Writing using plain, uncomplicated language is the essence of simplicity. Keeping it simple makes your writing more effective, easier to understand and more enjoyable to read. Writers should be happy to hear this; it means we can put down the thesaurus and stop wracking our brains for a more flowery way to state the facts. While we might think that we need to use big words and complicated sentences in order to sound like we know what we’re talking about, this approach often backfires. Readers are likely to find overly complex writing pretentious, and if it is too much of an effort to read and understand, they might put it aside and pick up something else entirely. I’m not suggesting that writing should be dumbed down. On the contrary, using simple, clear sentences to create coherent and well-constructed paragraphs is the best method of building complex arguments or stories.

How can I simplify my writing?

From George Orwell to Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway, there are many “rules” and much advice to follow when it comes to keeping things simple. “The Elements of Style,” written by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White and published in 1920, provides timeless rules for keeping writing simple, and is still required reading in many university level writing courses today. The main principles boil down to the following:

Have something to say, and be specific.

Find a subject that you care about. Say what you mean, and sound like yourself when you say it. Avoid writing words and phrases in writing that you wouldn’t use in normal conversation.

Keep your connection to the reader in mind.

Don’t use foreign words or jargon if there is an everyday word you can use instead; it will keep the reader engaged and prevent them from feeling they’re in over their head. Don’t bore the reader by being redundant or repeating yourself. Try not to ramble or overwrite. Have some pity on your readers; don’t make them roll their eyes at your clichés. In fact, clichés, simile, figures of speech should be used next to never. Over used phrases fail to evoke emotion and using long words when short words will suffice seems lofty.

Write active sentences.

Statements should be made in positive form, it keeps them shorter and more to the point. Besides, active sentences make more sense grammatically. Which sentence sounds better, “Why did the chicken cross the road” or “Why was the road crossed by the chicken”? The active voice is more vigorous than the passive, pushing the reader forward rather than making them pause. When I read passive phrases, I often find myself having to rework the sentence into an active form in my mind in order to better understand.

Edit ruthlessly.

Getting rid of unnecessary words is a good way whittle your writing and make it more streamlined. Why say “a large number of” when you can say “many”? If it is possible to eliminate a word, always cut it out. Check each paragraph for repetitive words to delete. Get rid of words that act as padding or provide excessive detail. Below is an example from Perdue University’s Online Writing Lab:

Wordy: The politician talked about several of the merits of after-school programs in his speech (14 words)

Concise: The politician promoted after-school programs in his speech. (8 words)

When editing, make sure that you’re not repeating yourself or beginning multiple sentences with the same word. Have you used proper grammar or confused any words? If a word is vague, replace it with something concise.

Complexity is a matter of structure; just think of the many architectural wonders of the world built from simple bricks. When composing, it is much easier to move simply constructed sentences around, rather than trying to make overly complicated sentences fit. I hope that you come away from this with a sense of relief that simpler is better!

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