The Importance of Clarity and Simplicity in Writing

In the second chapter of The Book of Writing, Paula LaRoque addresses a common ailment among aspiring – and sometimes even seasoned – writers: the tendency to use “pretentious mumbo jumbo”.

This topic was of particular interest to me because 1) I used to struggle with it, 2) I sometimes still do, and 3) I’ve always wondered what is so attractive about using gargantuan words. Why is it that we writers often feel the urge to use “fuzzy but important-sounding language”? Why are we often tempted “to impress rather than to communicate clearly”?

When I first realized that writing was something I really wanted to pursue, I thought the best way to go about crafting masterful prose was to grab a thesaurus and find the most complicated-sounding synonym for the simplest of words. Why say “used” when I could say “utilized”? Why say “walk” when I could say “ambulate” or “locomote”?

*sigh*

As I soon discovered, reading what I wrote was a royal pain – even for me, the author. Far from sounding “intellectual”, my prose sounded clumsy, jolting, and just plain weird. Forget a smoothly-paved highway – my reader would inevitably feel that he was on the bumpiest of dirt roads, with potholes the size of meteor-craters. Ouch.

Take, for instance, the following sentence:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

It’s a mouthful, isn’t it? And worse, it’s rather hard to understand. Would you like to know where it came from? I’ll tell you. That sentence is George Orwell’s deliberately turgid rewrite of one of the most famous passages in Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Simple, easy to understand, and yet profound. Does Orwell’s rewrite sound smarter? Would you, as an intelligent reader, prefer it? Speaking for myself, the answer is no.

Simply put, clearer is better. “… one hallmark of intellect is the ability to simplify, to make the complex easy to understand. Anyone can be unclear.”

Now, that’s not to say we should be over-simple in our writing, for that is not the same as simplicity. We’re not talking about “See Spot Run” here, nor are we advocating the dumbing down of language. But as LaRoque points out, “simplicity is neither barren nor elementary; it is just immediately, attractively, and interestingly clear.”

LaRoque asks us to consider some of the great speeches of history. Did Lincoln’s audience gripe about the simplicity and shortness of the Gettysburg address? Was Churchill wrong to say: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and on the streets, we shall fight in the hills”? Wouldn’t his intelligent listeners have preferred something like, “we shall engage in hostilities with incursive combatants in multiple locations”?

“The way to credibility,” says LaRoque, “is to speak and write plainly without language that bewilders or misleads. And the way to lose credibility is to veil the message in showy blather.”

Good advice, to be sure. If only it were heeded more.

My writing is still far from perfect. But it’s certainly better than it used to be, and I hope it’s getting better. At any rate, I’m not helping things when I refuse to call a banana a banana, and instead call it “an elongated yellow fruit”.

21 thoughts on “The Importance of Clarity and Simplicity in Writing”

  1. Excellent post, with which I agree entirely. I’m of the opinion that writers – especially, fiction writers – don’t need to have a dizzying vocabulary. Rather, they just need to know how to masterfully use the words they are familiar with.

    1. Exactly. A good writer will excel at using what he/she has it his/her disposal. Of course, I’m not opposed to a big vocabulary, so long as it doesn’t come at the cost of clarity. One of my favorite authors, Cormac McCarthy, has a massive array of words at his fingertips, yet he never fails to be abundantly clear in his writing.

      Thanks for the comment! :D

  2. Yowcherz! That was good. Thank you!

    I’m in the middle of two novels right now, and the struggle of big words vs simple and clear is pretty difficult sometimes. :P Thank you for the encouragement and affirmation!

    1. And thank you for reading and commenting! :) I know the struggle – it’s a tough one, and I still haven’t completely won it. You have to strike that fine balance of being crystal clear and delightfully elegant. If you can do that, you’ve got some killer prose. :D

  3. I agree, it’s very hard not to overdo it sometimes. Last year when I was doing some theological studies I forced myself to read two whole articles by some fellow who wrote entirely like the George Orwell paragraph. It was torture.
    Although having those big words in your repertoire is still good (for instance, when your public-school neighbors decide to compliment the fact that you’re raking the yard with by yelling out “Hi, Epic Failure!”–the only reason that they know the word ‘epic’ is because it’s a trend word, which I dislike using–but you can zip their lip by replying coolly, “Hello, Phenomenal infralapsarian!”). :D

    Great post, Corey, and right on the button. It’s phenomenally brilliant in epic proportions. ;)

  4. Oh, yes, vocabulary is good in the hands of a competent writer, but a terrible thing in the hands of a incompetent one. That I have noticed. Great post, and a lot to think about.

  5. This is so true. I’ve struggled with it as well, because I have a pretty good vocabulary and it’s fun to show it off. However, half the time no one knows what I’m saying! (I used to have a co-worker who also loved to use big words. We loved having conversations with each other–we spoke the same language!) :) (By the way, he has a terrific blog called The Seventh Sola–check it out sometime.)

    One thing that cured me of using it in writing was being a radio news reporter. In radio, there’s no time to go into flowery detail…everything has to boiled down to the clearest and most concise presentation. In fact, I think it’s almost handicapped my descriptive ability. I’m so used to focusing on not editorializing or using adjectives.

    Cindy @ Notes in the Key of Life

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Cindy! And thanks for the link – I’ll check it out! :D Yes, I would imagine that being a new reporter would nip flowery language in the bud rather quickly. :)

  6. To use plain words in extraordinary ways or to pull the reader into a magnificent scene or emotion without using too many adjectives is an art I’d like to master myself one day. :-) Great post!

  7. This was a great post, Corey! I definitely needed to hear that today after getting discouraged in my writing. Orwell’s writing that you shared was definitely VERY hard to follow… and even worse when I was reading the post out loud to my mom!! :D
    Your writing is fabulous. I just can’t imagine you using big words, though. *cough, cough* ;)

    1. Oh, believe me, I used to be exceedingly verbose… and even now, I’m occasionally tempted to avail myself of assuredly collosal expressions which resonate with eminence… er, use big words to impress people. ;)

  8. I enjoyed this post and your writing, Corey. This looks like a good book as I am always looking for ways to improve my writing.

    I do like “elongated yellow fruit”. :-)

  9. I am a learner but i love what i ‘m seing on this page. I believe that a writer communicates better when it is in a simple words.

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