ON SIMPLICITY IN WRITING

 

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I like a thing simple but it must be simple through complication. Everything must come into your scheme, otherwise you cannot achieve real simplicity.

Stein as an advocacy of simplicity is a little paradoxical. This is the woman that wrote lines like, “A feather is trimmed, it is trimmed by the light and the bug and the post, it is trimmed by little leaning and by all sorts of mounted reserves and loud volumes. It is surely cohesive.” However, simplicity through complication and vice versa is something every writer should learn.

Too often on WordPress I see writing stocked full of potential let down by excessive sentences. Seriously dense paragraphs full of little meaning, but a lot of words. There’s the argument that this is prose, it’s art, I can write however densely I want. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t work. I don’t want to read your writing. There’s too much of it. It’s too flowery. You can work on making your style more complicated when you’ve got the basics of story telling down. That’s for another article, though.

  • The words that you don’t say speak much louder than those that you do.
  • The words that you keep, the simple ones, the single syllables, the most basic syntax, will be layered with meaning by the words that come before it, i.e simplicity in complication.
  • Simple language can be used to portray complex ideas. Often this is better than layering your work with adverbs and adjectives. They detract from the true meaning of the sentence.

Here are some examples of the last lines of novels, which are so simple, yet layered and layered with meaning. The authors did not need excessive or flamboyant vocabulary to express themselves.

He loved Big Brother. -George Orwell, 1984

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” – Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

P.S. Sorry I forgot to give you the mayonnaise. –  Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America

Let’s run a simple exercise in understanding when or when not to simplify your sentences. Take this sentence:

Sitting opposite me at the table in the corner of the dimly lit cafe is a girl that I’ve always loved.

As a first sentence it reads quite well. Arguably, “the” gets repeated too many times, the spacing is irrelevant for a first sentence, and I’ve tried to portray three different perspectives, three different concepts. The table, the cafe, the girl. To simplify the sentence we’ve got to judge what’s the most important concept. The table, the cafe, the girl?

In this situation I’d say the girl, but the story might be about a cafe that eats people, or a sentient table. These are things you have to evaluate for yourself.

To make the girl the subject of the sentence is very easy.

We can remove “dimly lit” to begin with.

In fact, we can remove the table, the cafe and the fact that she’s even opposite the narrator.

What are we left with?

She’s a girl I’ve always loved.

Or, I’m sitting with a girl I’ve always loved.

If you can apply these rules to entire sentences, you can make sure that your paragraphs are packed full of plot-moving action, whilst also retaining an easy to read simplicity. Sometimes longer, more complicated sentences can be great, but it’s through achieving a balance that will greatly improve your style.

Via the Prompt.

Other similar articles:

ON AVOIDING CLICHÉ

ON HATING POETRY

19 thoughts on “ON SIMPLICITY IN WRITING

  1. These ideas on writing are so intriguing and helpful to me. I definitely think about them afterwards when I’m writing. Thank you for that.

    Also, I think you have a new plot with the cafe that eats people…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I almost take this personally, old boy — though I’m trying not to. Stein, my hero – my patron saint. A comic genius. A tactic of humour is repetition. Never be afraid to repeat a phrase, because when you repeat a phrase, the more often you repeat the phrase (because, as I say, repetition is a tactic of humour) the more humorous the repeated phrase becomes — and your meaning is clear — because, as I say, of course, as I’ve said, you’ve repeated your meaning, if you see what I mean. One must (mustn’t one?) be simply simple through clear complication.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An interaction between Stein and Hemingway after they had a minor falling out over some literary some-such.

      Stein is famous for the line “a rose is a rose is a rose” of course.

      Hemingway then sent a telegram to Stein. When it arrived, she asked the patron to read it out to her. It was from Hemingway. It read:

      “A bitch is a bitch is a bitch.”

      No one is sure if this actually happened. Hemingway parodies the line in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Great story, nonetheless.

      Liked by 1 person

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