The Case for Simple Writing

arrowsWhat is “good” writing? Many people mistakenly consider “good” writing to be characterized by long, flowing, flowery sentences that test, tease, and bend the rigid rules of grammar, using countless commas and unnecessary language and verbiage to lull the reader into a sense of complacency and confusion; that is, until the reader receives the pseudo-break of a semicolon, only to be thrown back into the baffling, confusing, and some could say perplexing, depths of a sentence that never seems to reach its foregone and tragically inevitable conclusion. There is a place for sentences like this, and that place is your personal diary or journal. However, superfluous writing does not belong in academic essays. In fact, I think that academic writing should be the exact opposite; it should be simple.

In every piece of writing, the writer and the reader play unspoken roles. The writer is there to communicate ideas to the reader. The reader is there to interpret those ideas. As a writer, why make the reader’s role more difficult than it needs to be? To me, the best essays are clearly written and well-organized. They have concise, arguable thesis statements. They have well-written paragraphs that are situated in a predictable, structured fashion. They do not contain writing that serves no purpose other than to confuse the reader or to put the writer’s extensive vocabulary on display. Once again, the writer’s role is to communicate ideas to the reader. The best essays are the ones that do so in the clearest way possible.

My defense of simple writing may seem like a defense of boring writing by default, but I disagree. Unnecessarily long sentences exhaust the reader and steal attention from the piece as a whole. Think of every sentence as a simple brushstroke. Individually, a singular brushstroke seems insignificant. However, once the artist combines that brushstroke with others, the piece as a whole becomes clear. Writing, like any art form, is often at its best when it is simple and accessible. This notion especially holds true in the field of academic writing, where the writing that seems dull actually shines the brightest.

Write What You Know

Writing what we know is not writing what has happened to us, but rather writing through the lens of what has happened to us.

A lot of writing advice is really useful — “show, don’t tell”, “kill your darlings”, and “write every day” have been pretty clear and reliable to me. However, one piece of writing advice that never failed to confuse me was “write what you know.” This convenient phrase sounds easy in the moment, whether you read it from a list of writing tips or a mentor urges you onward with an inspiring tone.

“Ah,” you think. “Of course. Write what I know — what else would I write?”

It’s not until you’re sitting in front of a blank screen, the blinking cursor taunting you, that you realize how terribly unclear this advice is. The barrage of questions starts:

What do I know? Do I write about my life? Do I write about the books and poetry I’ve read? Have I read the right authors? Do I know enough about my subject? Do I even know anything?

The doubt starts to creep in. Writers have complicated, full lives, right? They’re artists, so they have to be tortured, or worldly. I have so much life I haven’t lived! What do I possibly have to offer?

perspectiveOver time, I have come to find that this deceptively simple saying is pretty misleading. For me, it has more to do with perspective. Writing what we know is not writing what has happened to us, but rather writing through the lens of what has happened to us. In other words, we write with the eyes through which we see the world.

The best way I can illustrate this is to have you picture a simple scene: a horse runs through a field.

Picture it. Really picture it, every last detail, like you are living it right there and now. Got it?

Here’s what I see: A black horse gallops through a field of overgrown and wild grass. The sunlight ripples on it like on the vast ocean. It’s distant and yet the earth vibrates as it thunders past, the center of everything. Then it’s gone.

I’m willing to bet that’s not what you saw, because that’s not what you know. The colors of that (very short) story were impermanence and vastness and darkness and light. The colors of your story were likely something different, but beautiful nevertheless.

I hope that makes “write what you know” a little clearer. If not, don’t be afraid to write a little of what you don’t know, just as long as you’re writing something.