Essential writing skills: when plain English isn’t – and how to write simply

It was Ernest Hemingway, I think, who once remarked that he didn’t need to use the ‘ten dollar’ words in order to write well. Too true. Plain is best when it comes to writing.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...
Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Hemingway didn’t mean that we must then reduce ‘plain English’ to an accounting exercise – you know, the attempt to reduce readability to numbers through ‘Gunning Fog’ tests, ‘Flesch Kincaid’ scores and so on.

Apart from anything else, it’s too easy to game them. String together a nonsense set of three-letter words in four or five-word sentences and guess what – these tests insist it’s the best possible sort of writing.

Except it isn’t.  But what can we expect when we try to reduce a complex social expression to numbers?

The reality is that clear writing has a lot less to do with short words and sentences than you may think. The reason, I suspect, that this has been conflated with ‘simple’ is because requiring that sort of structure stops inexpert writers from producing long and convoluted sentences.

Actually, it’s perfectly possible to write plainly and simply with long sentences, too. Hemingway did it – interspersing them with his short sentences.

The trick isn’t sentence length or even word length. It’s all to do with organisation. Writers wrestle with two things, mainly, when composing material: (a) the translation of an abstract concept into words; and (b) doing so in a linear fashion.

It’s the failure to do these things that usually leads to writing being convoluted. Mix in the point that writing is often required of people (let’s say in a corporate environment) who aren’t expert in it – though they are subject experts – and the result is often disastrously complex phrasing, as they wrestle with ideas that they just don’t have the writing chops to nail down.

My suggestion – which I think is handy for any writer, anyway – is to try this:

  1. Translate your thoughts. Get a blank sheet of paper and a pen. Jot down your ideas, anywhere on the paper, without putting them in any order. A word or two each, maybe a phrase. Then get another sheet of paper. Do the ideas seem to form an order or pattern? Copy them across, in that order. Revise any phrases along the way. Do they make sense? No? Repeat. Do NOT use software. It’s important to do this by hand, with the copying – it’s integral to making you THINK in a DIFFERENT WAY.
  1. Now expand your list of words and phrases – figure out how it translates into sentences and paragraphs. Re-word completely if necessary, that’s part of the process too. Does it make more sense than before? Is there a better way of phrasing it? Stick to the pen and paper for the minute.
  2. Now it’s time to type it into the word processor – once again, reviewing and revising as you go. In theory this should get your ideas in order. Now’s the time to re-word again, this time for style.

Does this approach work for you? How do you organise chaos into order when writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


14 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: when plain English isn’t – and how to write simply

  1. Writing clearly is nearly the same thing as thinking clearly. You cannot take a vague, blurry thought and turn it into good writing. You have to be able to analyze your own ideas. And this doesn’t apply only to the kind of writing we do in typical work environments. It applies to poetry, for instance. You need to ask yourself, “What am I trying to say?” Poets have to go deeper and into intuitive realms to answer that same question, but they still have to answer it. Analysis and introspection are needed for any kind of writing.

    1. Absolutely right. And it’s surprising how many thoughts (even the clearest) turn into a blur when writers try to convey them in words. Hemingway summed it up. You sit down at the typewriter and bleed…

    1. Writing’s writing, I guess…🙂 It’s surprising how much the skills transfer between genres – I was trained in fiction writing, turned to non-fiction, and of late have returned to fiction. It’s been an intriguing experience because so much of what worked for non-fiction – technically and structurally – also applies to the fiction.

        1. It’s worth it for the basics – though I figure the real lessons come from hands-on writing – trying different things, consciously pushing the envelope all the time.

  2. Matthew,

    Your advice makes a lot of sense. I realize that I should probably spend some time going through more of your posts on writing. Thanks in advance.

    I’ve done so much reading over the years that my writing is based almost entirely on instinct, but I also have a tendency to scrutinize my writing so much that I think I hold myself back. Maybe that’s where I lack the skills that could result in more confidence.

    When I get into conversations, and especially when I write, I think of all the possible ways that something can be taken the wrong way, which can be good, but also exhausting. When reading books like Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” I’m just in awe of his storytelling ability… surely much of it must be talent.

    -Ben

    1. Thanks – please do check out my other writing posts. I have to say that we all stand in awe of Hemingway! I think talent plays a part – and no question, he had it in spades. I suspect he himself didn’t think so; he always looked on writing as an exercise in emotional exhaustion. My own suspicion, based on my experience of the field (30-odd years now professionally writing and working as a publisher, gak!) is that as always it’s about 5 percent talent and 95 percent sweat.

  3. I always find a conflict between simplicity and artistry. On the one hand you want the story to flow, but on the other, when writing fiction, you want to choose the right words to give the work that veneer of beauty (or horror or action, whatever’s appropriate to the genre.)

    I deal with simplicity at the third draft stage and find myself reading and re-reading a sentence or a paragraph and rewriting it until it flows with a rhythm of its own. I find the most common block to how the work flows is that link between the end of one word and the beginning of the next.

    But the irony of simplicity is the amount of hard work necessary to achieve it.

    1. Yes, it’s remarkably hard to write simply! The trick is knowing what to leave out, without disturbing the meaning and rhythms of the sentence. Hemingway was masterful at it. Few others have conquered the technique (though a lot of writers try).

  4. Great exercise, Matthew! I do something similar to this. I find that in the rearranging of words and phrases I clarify what I am trying to say. Often, I will find a new rhythm to the sentence that was not in the original attempts. Wonderful advice and thank you.
    Karen

    1. Glad to be of assistance! You mention rhythm – this is absolutely something that sentences have. It’s as important as rhythm in music. I suspect that when that rhythm-of-words meshes properly, it springs out at the author and you know it’s ‘right’. Certainly that’s what happens to me.

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