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Keeping things simple

Keep it simple

Expanding your Writing Skills:
The Five Simplicities

In Part Four of Writing Skills, we examine simplicity, looking at four basics for good writing:

  • simplicity
  • economy (or brevity)
  • clarity
  • accuracy

Ironically, as a writing student (or as a student of creative arts who needs to write), you may not find simplicity easy to attain. First drafts often result in spontaneous explosions of writing which feel very good to get down on paper, but perhaps disappoint when you read them through. You have probably repeated yourself unnecessarily or written in an overblown way; you may even find the dreaded ‘purple passages’ – darlings that need to be murdered. This is the reason that Writing Skills Part One advises the use of a highlighter pen when reading through your freewrites – the highlighted areas are the tiny nuggets among much new material. This is editing and redrafting at work – the difference between being delighted with what you first get down and actually discovering golden nuggets that you can use.
You may have noticed that the Project on Simplicity in Part Four of Writing Skills is separate to the Project on Language. Simplicity doesn’t alway walk hand in hand with grammar, as Joseph M Williams, in his essay Style; Towards Clarity and Grace points out…Now there is a lively debate about whether action and understanding have anything to do with each other, whether those who want to write clearly ought to study principles of language at all. You may write well, yet can’t distinguish a subject from a verb, or you may understand everything from retained objects to the subjunctive pluperfect progressive, and still write badly.
Simplicity results from a well-developed sense of what has to go, plus the courage to trust the writing to work even when it is pared down. Having the confidence to not over-complicate is something that comes with practice. As well as keeping your style and your personal writing voice ‘simple, economic, clear and accurate’, you also need the confidence to see the complex in small things.
There are times to use complex sentences and technical terminology, but your use of them will be much more effective if you keep your personal writing voice simple and straightforward, in prose, poetry and scriptwriting. A good way to begin the process is in your first edit, where you can check, for example, the length of sentences and paragraphs, so that they don’t run on unnecessarily. And, as recommended all the way through Writing Skills, read your finished draft aloud. Keeping an ear tuned to writing that embraces the idea of brevity, is easy for your readers to understand, and steers you away from confusion towards clarity.
But although these four simplicities are undoubtably important aspects of achieving writing you will be proud of, the list feels rather cold – all about the technicality of writing. Surely, part of a clear style should be to touch upon emotions so that readers feel a simply, yet deep connection to your writing. What seems to be missing is a degree of empathy. Empathy is part of the criteria for assessment in creative writing, under the heading of Creativity. The word means ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. What assessors are looking for here is the skill of a writer to lead their reader towards empathy with their characters, whether fictional or non-fictional. Has this anything to do with getting a good style which is clear, accurate and simple?
William Zinsser is an American writer, editor and teacher who champions a simplistic style. He wrote…Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. (On Writing Well, Harper Perennial 2016)). He hits the nail of the head when he adds…Four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity. This gives us five simplicities:

  • simplicity
  • economy/brevity
  • clarity
  • accuracy
  • humanity.

Writing with humanity, alongside simplicity, creates a balanced approach. William Faulkner, a writer known for his minimalist style, perhaps summed this up in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950…The writer’s duty, to help man endure by lifting his heart. But how does a student go about amalgamating these different aspects? To help with that, let’s look at three authors who manage to be wonderfully simple and full of humanity, but extremely complex at the same time. Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski is one of his country’s major writers and cultural figures. Here he is showing utter simplicity and empathy in his poem The washing never gets done.
The washing never gets done.
The furnace never gets heated.
Books never get read.
Life is never completed.
Life is like a ball which one must continually
catch and hit so that it won’t fall.
When the fence is repaired at one end,
it collapses at the other. The roof leaks,
the kitchen door won’t close, there are cracks in the foundation,
the torn knees of children’s pants. . .
One can’t keep everything in mind. The wonder is
that beside all this one can notice
the spring which is so full of everything
continuing in all directions – into evening clouds,
into the redwing’s song and into every
drop of dew on every blade of grass in the meadow,
as far as the eye can see, into the dusk.
Being Human Ed Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books Ltd 2011)
And here is Richard Ford, the American minimalist and ‘dirty realism’ writer, whose stories have a wonderful lack of sentimentality and yet an undercurrent of menace…
I’d gotten us a good car, a cranberry Mercedes I’d stolen out of an ophthalmologist’s lot in Whitefish, Montana. I stole it because I thought it would be comfortable over a long haul, because I thought it got good mileage, which it didn’t, and because I’d never had a good car in my life, just old Chevy junkers and used trucks back from when I was a kid swamping citrus with Cubans.
The car made us all high that day. I ran the windows up and down, and Edna told us some jokes and made faces She could be lively. Her features would light up like a beacon and you could see her beauty, which wasn’t ordinary. It all made me giddy, and I drove clear down to Bozeman, then straight on thought the park to Jackson Hole. I rented us the bridal suite in the Quality Court in Jackson and left Cheryl and her little dog, Duck, sleeping while Edna and I drove to a rib barn and drank beer and laughed till after midnight.
Rock Springs, Richard Ford (Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2012)
Both the short story and the poem above are complex and rich in meaning, while having a simple style and deep humanity. But novels are longer, and by their nature offer room for huge complexity. Marilynne Robinson is an award-winning American author. Her ‘Gilead’ trilogy is luminous, detailed, compassionate, deceptively simple in style while also being intrinsically complex. (And note how she handles something I warned against above – the very long sentence)…
She was sitting on the stoop in the sun, just for a minute, thinking about things. How good the sunlight felt on a chilly morning, and how familiar that old parched wood smell was, and how strange it seemed to be at peace where she had been so lonesome before, to be more at peace than in the old man’s house, kind as he always was. She opened her coat to the sun so that the baby could feel it warming her lap. She might even have fallen asleep, because there was a boy standing at a distance watching her, there for a while at least without her noticing him, she could tell by the way he was shifting his weight from one foot to the other, shifting a little bundle he had from one hand to the other. When she saw him, he looked away. She said, “Morning.”
Lila, Marilynne Robinson (Virago Press 2014)
Now, when you’re reading for your course, take note of the way the writer uses all the simplicities, and ask yourself if the work, be it poem, script or prose, also has the underlying complexity that comes with a well-rounded writing voice.

Posted by author: Nina
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5 thoughts on “Keeping things simple

  • As writers, students and tutors, we should all take note of the advice in Nina’s blog. Simplicity is an important watchword especially when we are re-drafting. Thank you, Nina, for making us all think carefully so that we can take control of our writing and not let our writing take control of us

  • Thanks for this post Nina. I find that even though not currently (leaving the door open) involved in any CW course I always take snippets of information & help from posts such as this. Remembering to be concise and simple applies to other courses too so thank you.

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