Why For Writers, Simplicity is Harder Than Complexity

Keys on a keyboardIt’s pretty tough, putting pen to paper for the first time. Or, more appropriately these days, ‘putting finger to keys’. The romantic in me likes to think there are people still writing with a quill and parchment, but I doubt that’s very mainstream.

What’s nice about getting started, is that once you’re on your way, and you ease into the process, I think those words can flow. The 2,000 word essay, or 5,000 word chapter goal you’ve set yourself suddenly becomes a lot more achievable.

However, when I go back to look at what I’ve written, I sometimes get a bit frustrated.

More often that not, the source of the frustration isn’t about the quality or amount of the writing, my frustration is over the lack of simplicity.

For most contemporary writers, simplicity should be the goal. And writing in a way that’s simple, clear and straightforward, is always much harder than writing in a complex way.

I’ve seen my fair share of complex writing from new writers, looking to get their first novel published. Some of them revel in the complexity of their prolix, ‘intellectual’ effort, as if it’s something to be proud of. But it isn’t something to be proud of. If you’ve written something so ‘clever’ that it requires me to go back and re-read it, then there’s a good chance you’ve lost me as a reader. Do it another couple of times, and I’m going to give up and read something else.

Complexity is always easier that simplicity. And no one thinks you’re clever for writing in an overly complex way. I’ve read tweets from ‘writers’ that are so convoluted, that I’ve had to re-read them (often more than once) to understand what they were trying to say. If they can do that much damage in 140 characters, how alienating is their novel going to be?

Yes, your story should be smart. It should be unique, inventive and compelling. But it should never be hard to read. If your goal is to write in a manner that makes you sound smarter or better educated than, say, Lee Child, ask yourself: how successful is Lee? How beloved is his work? And did his work get there by being sophisticated, alienating and convoluted? Or did it get there by simple presented in a clear, straightforward way?

Make no mistake, writing with extreme clarity is very difficult. There’s probably a dozen sentences in this blog post that doesn’t fully pass that test. But it’s important to work towards simplicity. Because simplicity means your work is more accessible, and therefore more popular than it otherwise would be.

Being unique, smart and popular in a single piece of writing – whatever the writing is – remains one of the hardest challenges for a writer. But for most of us, it should always remain the key goal.

And a case in point; for reasons of simplicity and clarity I probably should have replaced this entire article with a single sentence:

Make your writing readable.

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