Friday, November 19, 2010

Keep It Simple, Say It Plainly.

I was talking to a friend earlier this week about how you can tell when a writer is trying too hard. The signs are usually obvious, even to an untrained eye:
  • Strained similes and metaphors are in every other sentence.
  • Every adjective sounds like it was the 5th entry in a thesaurus search.
  • Most words have a three-syllable minimum.
  • Ideas and events are told, then shown, then explained again, but with different words. And then there's the summary...
Every writer does this. All of 'em, me included, though I've found it's most common with people who are either inexperienced or trying to impress people. Most of the time, this is done with good intentions. When you care about what you're writing -- whether it's a grant proposal, a college essay, a screenplay, a speech or a magazine article -- you want it to be good. Memorable. Perhaps even unforgettable. You want to make a good impression, or get your point across. So you go the extra mile to make every sentence great, because you care about your work -- it's all about the work, dammit!

If this sounds like you, stop. You're not doing yourself, your readers or (if you're writing for publication) your editors any favors.

It's very easy to get so caught up in The Writing that you forget about The Reader. Your sentence could use the most original words and imagery ever written, but if the reader has to slog through large, long blocks of text, unfamiliar words and confusing comparisons, it won't matter, because they will stop reading. This point does warrant a repeat, and extra formatting:

They will stop reading.

Whether you're writing The Great American Novel, or an email to colleagues, you don't have work sentences into flowery prose, explain every minute detail, or use words that you've only ever heard on the National Spelling Bee. A little bit of the fancy stuff here and there is great -- it makes the writing interesting, both for you and the reader. But when it's too much, your story gets confusing, your message gets lost, and no one has heard that thing you labored so hard and so long to say.

More often, it is the short, straightforward words that are the most powerful. That's what people remember and respond to most.

Keep it simple. Say it plainly.


  1. As the great J School prof Tom Cunningham said... Never use a 50 cent word when a 10 cent word will do...