A case for simple (not simple-minded) writing

Here’s evidence that what our English teachers told us made sense.

Writing tips from successful authors, many of them long dead, echo the marching orders heard in classrooms for generations. Write in simple declarative sentences. Kill adverbs. Write in active voice, not passive. Avoid cliches. Write to communicate, not to impress.

Haven’t most of us broken all those rules? Or didn’t listen in the first place? I know I did.

I’m getting better at accepting that writing simple is better. Some of my earlier work gives me a start. The Thesaurus was my best friend because I was in love with big words. I still get a little dizzy over the ring of words such as “dichotomy” and “quintessential,” but how many people talk like that? A love affair with big words preoccupies a writer with the dictionary instead of telling a good story. I’ve been there. I admit it.

Take the last piece you wrote. Strike every possible adverb, meaning every “very” and every word ending in “ly,” to see what remains. Turn passive verbs into active ones. Throw out foreign language phrases unless you’re writing for an audience that understands them. There’s a time and place for everything, but a successful writer won’t encumber readers with such distractions unless he knows his audience and the language fits the story. It’s not the writer’s job to confuse readers, but to tell them a story.

One of my favorite authors, Jack Kerouac, wrote in a tangled tongue. His book The Subterraneans reads like a single 111-page sentence. “A book of new power and awesome beauty,” the San Francisco Examiner concluded when it was published in 1958.

We have plenty of room in the writing world for Kerouac and other accomplished “stream of consciousness” authors like William Faulkner and Tom Wolfe who found literary niches. I doubt the rest of us will succeed in today’s competitive market if we ignore the basics.

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip,” said Elmore Leonard, who started his writing career with westerns 50 years ago and then moved into crime fiction and suspense thrillers.

His writing advice, and that of several other successful authors, appears on the BuzzFeed website. Here is a sampling. You might hear your English teacher talking:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Ernest Hemingway

“Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” George Orwell

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Stephen King

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Mark Twain

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” Edgar Allen Poe

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place …. Something more will arise for later, something better.” Annie Dillard

“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” Ray Bradbury

“Start as close to the end as possible.” Kurt Vonnegut

Posted by Kevin S. Giles



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