8 Sept 2008

Keep it simple!

A friend recently said around the lunch table that she had seen the link to this blog in my e-mail signature and decided to take a look. She went on to tell us how embarrassed she felt about her own writings when compared to the musings presented here.

It came as a bit of a surprise to me, especially when you consider she works as a scientist at a major medical research institute in Stockholm. (My recollection may be confused here, but I’m led to believe she is studying a form of meningitis and how we can combat this disease. Her friends around the lunch table did a great job of consoling her feelings of writing inadequacy by teasing her that she just kills mice and sucks out their brains for a living).

What is it about writing that scares even someone like this? Isn’t it something that everyone does? It led me to think how often I had heard other frighteningly intelligent people say they cannot write well. And I have to say they are sometimes right.

Nobel-prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that literature is just carpentry with words. You might think this is easy to say for a man who can build the literary equivalent of the Hermitage, but his basic message of keeping it simple, using only those words you need to express your idea quickly and cleanly, is one that applies to every style of writing. You would never see a carpenter add stray pieces of wood or steel to the foundation of his work ­– why would they? They serve no purpose and may even weaken a structure. While these stray elements may not be as obvious to the writer, they are things that they should always be on the lookout for.

Communication where the writer has attempted to display their knowledge of vocabulary or even hide their lack of knowledge in long, meandering sentences has only ever led to confusion and frustration in a reader – the purpose of communication is lost.

So next time you sit down to write, distill what you want to say down into one, short sentence, and provide yourself with a clear, solid foundation from which to start. And remember that even the most baroque literature has a clear, simple message running through it – a solid foundation that has been strong enough to carry any flourishes the writer may wish to add. That is what makes it enjoyable.



Anonymous said...

I must have been about 8-years old when my father was complaining about a problem a work. His colleague, an engineer, couldn't write a simple project status report. This guy, just as you described, relied on jumbled expressions, complex language and run-on sentences.

Anonymous said...

Great comment Mark.
About 10 years ago, when I went to buy an apartment in Dublin, I verbally abused my solicitor for his ridiculously complicated language.

He said with a smug grin on his face that all solicitors wrote like that to give the impression that they were smarter than their clients.

I told him that I didn't think it was working; that anyone who needs three pages to state that one person wanted to buy an apartment from another person can't be that smart. I asked him if he agreed.

He asked me what I did for a living.

"I'm a journalist," I said.
"Oh," said the smart solicitor and we left it at that.