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The Cult of Simple Writing

The Cult of Simple Writing

by Jake on August 30, 2010

Post image for The Cult of Simple Writing

For a long time I read a lot of the writing blogs out there. For the most part, they’re helpful. But there’s one trend I see that’s beginning to bug me—The Cult of Simple Writing.

Seems like everywhere you go, people are preaching the mantra of simple writing. Keep it clean. Function over form. Pace over information. Why are people telling us to write like this?

For one thing, I think it’s fear. We fear that if our writing is too convoluted or too complicated or too long, well, then the reader will just check out. And that’s true. When you’re writing for the web. That’s why on this blog I keep my paragraphs short, and my sentences even shorter. Reading (and writing) online is definitely an exercise in simple content.

But the problem is that these writing bloggers aren’t talking to people who want to be web writers (for the most part). They’re talking to folks who want to actually write. And I think telling someone who is writing a book to keep it simple over complex or to focus on pace instead of information is just horrible advice. Because there are times when a complex argument requires a complex examination. When a text should demand something of its reader. And when the goal shouldn’t be pacing so you can digest the book as much as possible but actually sit down and carefully read through it.

I know that crappy writing needs to be edited. But there is a growing trend of distilling writing down till it’s so lean that none of the fat that marbles a text with an author’s personality exists. What’s left is a dry piece of meat that has no flavor.

As editors, we should first be writers. As ghostwriters, we should first be authors. What I mean is that it’s important to keep in mind that a text should shine forth the personality of the writer, not the editor’s grammatical dexterity. If that means that a section needs to be a little messy. Let it be. If that means you end a sentence in a preposition. So be it.

As the old saying goes, the rules are made to be broken. The difference between a good writer and a great one is that he or she knows when to break them.

In many ways blogging has ruined good writing by propogating the untruth that good writing is simple writing. While it’s true that simple writing can be good writing, think Hemingway, simple writing is not good writing.

Good writing is writing that moves the reader, that sparks emotion. Good writing is writing the communicates important ideas with great content and thought. Good writing makes the reader stop and ponder, not digest as quickly as possible and move onto the next piece of content.

For the most part, good writing is dying. Drowning in a pool of simple content and hollow advice.

So, here’s my advice. Write slow. Write deliberately. Write completely. If it turns out that simple writing is part of that process, so be it. But don’t confuse lean writing with offering up a literary meal.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

greg perry September 7, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Wonderfully said. Long form print, especially books, may be the last refuge of complex ideas with real nutritional value. That’s why I migrated my work from copywriting to ghostwriting, and I struggle everyday with the right balance of economy and inclusion. I just wonder if the Cult has gone mainstream and now stands in the daylight as Conventional Wisdom.

Reading the post I was certain you’d work in this old saw from Mr. Einstein. Now I guess it’s up to me…

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Jake Johnson September 7, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Thanks, Greg. Great quote. Wish I’d remembered that one. Glad you were able to add it to the conversation.

Pretty sure the cult is mainstream. Seems the whole world is enamored with simplicity. I guess that’s what happens when all your tools actually make life more busy and complex ;)

Maya Pillai September 7, 2010 at 7:52 pm

An awesome piece of writing. It is a fact that bloging has ruined good writing.

Many of the web readers have very little patience to read through an entire piece of article. They scan the article to get the information they are looking for.

That is one of the reasons why the paragraphs and the sentences have to be short and terse. It is a Herculean task to make the reader stay on your website even for a couple of minutes.

Thanks

maya

sylvie shene May 2, 2011 at 8:46 pm

“As the old saying goes, the rules are made to be broken. The difference between a good writer and a great one is that he or she knows when to break them”

I agree — another great article! Thank you, sylvie

Dillon Gene Grillo July 15, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Beautifully written. Sorry for the simplicity.

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