Simplicity in Writing

Clutter is the disease of American writing.~William Zinsser, On Writing Well

What makes good writing? In a word: simplicity.

In fact, simplicity in writing is so important, Mr. Zinsser dedicated a whole chapter to the subject (and I’m dedicating an entire blog post to it).

In college, as a journalism student, professors stressed the importance of being clear and concise in news writing.  But I think it’s important to be clear and concise in all types of writing.

Before we go further, let me stop and point something out: simple writing is not to be confused with dull writing.

Think about the prose of literary greats such as Hemingway, or Steinbeck, they were both able to tell engaging tales without superfluous words or phrases. Their work has been studied and read and re-read. Their simple writing style has stood the test of time.

I happen to think of Ernest Hemingway as one of the best (simple) fiction writers of all time. Whether you like his writing or not, you do have to agree with what Ernie says about the act of writing:

My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.

Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.
I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
So as writers, how do we know our writing is simple and clear? I’m no expert on this topic, I, like you, strive to master simple, concise writing.
For the answer, I will close this blog post with a bit more of what Mr. Zinsser says:
…the secret to good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what–these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.
How do you define simple writing? What steps are you taking as a writer to make your writing simpler? I’d love to hear from you, feel free to leave a comment below.

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