Deceptively Simple Writing

Writing should look easy.

I saw a poet give a reading last Wednesday night. His poems told simple stories about his upbringing in an English boarding school. The audience (white-haired like him) laughed and nodded their heads and remembered things they’d long forgotten.

When it came time for questions, the audience asked him the kind of questions every writer gets: “Where do you get your ideas?” “What time of day do you write?” “What kind of desk do you use?”

Luckily, the poet understood what the audience REALLY wanted to know, which is how he wrote his poems.

He explained that he took ages over every poem. When he finished a draft, he cut up the lines into fragments of paper and laid them out on his large wooden desk. He moved them around, considered the result, then moved them again.

His job was to find out what the poem was about and then hone it until it said what it had to say. This was a process. It took time.

In the end, he had a poem that looked like it had taken 5 minutes to write.

Editing is a Process of Clarification and Simplification

It’s not easy to write something simple.

Just look at great short story writers like Raymond Carver or O. Henry. Anyone who believes that these stories spring forth from the writer’s mind fully formed is mistaken. It takes great skill, discipline, and perseverance to hone a short story or poem down to its essence, until it flows so naturally that the reader could imagine no alternative.

Perhaps that’s why so many people dream of writing a novel. In a novel, they can give free rein to their imagination. They don’t “need” the discipline of the shorter forms.

Except, of course, they do.

The difference between the first Harry Potter novel and the last one is a perfect example. Which book is the better book? In my opinion, it’s the first. I suspect that Rowling’s editor had much more say back when she wasn’t famous, and the first book benefited by it.

Most of us authors have a love affair with our own words—how can we help it?—but great authors have a core of ruthlessness. They may write a three-hundred page manuscript, but that’s just the first draft. Then the editing process begins, a process that may cut the novel down to one-third its original size.

Allow yourself time to be deliciously verbose with your first draft. You never know where the story is going to go, and following a diversion might just lead you to a more interesting story.

But when it comes times to edit, you have to make every word count. You can’t leave in anything that doesn’t pull its weight.

Hacking away at your beloved words is painful. It can kill the spirit in a fledgling writer. Which is why, perhaps, there’s so much unnecessary verbosity in student writing, where you’re not quite sure what point the young author is trying to make or where it’s all leading. But the words are beautiful, and that’s what matters when you’re just starting out.

I suspect that’s why Kerouac is such a perennial favorite. He boasted that he wrote in one unbroken stream of consciousness (mind-altering drugs optional), editing nothing. Kerouac’s spontaneous prose can appeal to young writers as more authentic, more radical, and more FUN than the academic alternative of revising endless drafts.

Obviously, it is much easier to get the kernal of a great idea, leap immediately to the computer or notebook, and write fast and furious until the idea dries up, then submit your great work of art immediately for publication.

But is your “great work of art” really as great as you think it is?

Most unedited writing, in my experience, is messy, complicated, and choked with unnecessary stuff.

Is Complexity the Sign of Great Writing?

When Modern Library declared James Joyce’s Ulysses as the greatest book of the 20th century, the craft of writing took a huge blow. Say what you like about Ulysses, the average reader finds it incomprehensible.

You might conclude that, if THAT is great writing, then surely the best way to write great works of art is to be incomprehensible. Toss out structure; play with form. Don’t worry about whether your readers are following you. Instead, follow the path in your mind that jumps from thought to thought, having faith that there is method, layered meaning and symbolism in its madness.

You can go down that direction if you want. You can write incredibly complex works and claim that your readers and critics just don’t understand you.

But wouldn’t it be nice to clear a path for more general readers, so that they can appreciate your writing, too? Or would you feel that your work isn’t high-brow enough if just ANYONE can read it and enjoy it?

I believe that stream of consciousness, as a narrative device, has produced a plethora of solipsistic writers who are more concerned with what’s going on in THEIR heads to be concerned about what’s going on in the reader’s head.

But what’s going on in the reader’s head MATTERS.

At the end of the day, readers are the ones who keep a roof over our heads and food in our mouths. Readers put books at the top of the bestseller lists. Readers turn books into classics. You can’t afford to ignore your readers.

And your readers don’t CARE what’s going on in your head. All they care about is whether you have a message for THEM. The reader is always selfish.

In this day and age of a thousand demands on the attention, readers aren’t going to pay attention to a writer who seems more interested in spinning verbal castles in the air than coming down to the ground.

A reader will pick up a book, spend 8 seconds deciding whether to read it, and put it down again and walk away without another thought.

We writers can’t afford to let our readers walk away from us. We have to fight for their attention, and there’s one easy way of doing that:

Write clearly.

Simplicity is Deceptive

Have you ever written something just because it sounds good—even though you’re not really sure what it means?

I have to raise my hand. I’ve written endless mixed metaphors and poetic mumbo jumbo.

There’s nothing wrong with writing down everything that comes into your head, but there IS something wrong in setting everything you’ve written in stone.

Writing down words is just the beginning. Your unedited work is like the proverbial diamond in the rough. Those words won’t shine until you polish them, and polishing them involves a process of cutting parts away until the true shape of the story emerges.

Just as you could never imagine a diamond shaped any other way, so you’ll know a story is done when not a single word, sentence or paragraph seems out of place. It gleams as a single, unified whole. The way each scene follows on from the previous one is so obvious, so necessary, so logical, that there’s no other way you could have arranged it and still have had it make sense.

Simplicity takes a lot of work. A complicated story is much easier to write than a simple one.

Just ask the poet I mentioned earlier. He expends a lot of time and effort in taking his complicated first drafts and making them simple.

He knows that when you have a dozen points to make, you dilute their effectiveness.

But when you have a single point to make—and you make it well—the reader walks away in awe. The reader REMEMBERS your message. And the reader tells it to others, who read your work and then tell others.

One Last Thing

The editing process is crucial.

It’s a process of clarification, where you consider what a story is about and weigh the value of each scene, paragraph and sentence.

If you can’t make head nor tails of what you’ve written, chances are a reader can’t, either. Toss it out.

And the next time you come upon a deceptively simple poem or story, and you’re tempted to say, “That looks easy.  I could easily do that,” remember how messy your own writing gets.

Clear writing only LOOKS simple. The simpler it looks, the more effort has gone into it.

Category : Writing


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