Echoing Thoreau’s call to ‘simplify, simplify’, Coco Chanel reportedly advised women that before leaving the house, they should remove one accessory or piece of jewelry. Good advice for fashion. Good advice for writing.
The poet Mary Oliver described a similar approach to her wordcraft: “Whatever isn’t necessary shouldn’t be in a poem.”
Perhaps this applies to all creative acts (e.g., writing, baking, painting, decorating, acrobatics). A practical mantra: “Whatever isn’t necessary shouldn’t be in a _____”—something that rings true after my recent cucumber omelette debacle. Still, an obvious truth, but not quite so easy to accomplish.
In Writing Well, William Zinsser gets to the heart of the writer’s (and the reader’s) struggle:
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. […] But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank. (2006, p. 6)
So, the more educated and accomplished you are, the more impenetrable your writing? That often seems to be the case. Here’s a random example (I won’t list the author’s name):
“But for us, as remarked above, something more was apparent, viz. that the differences, qua differences of content and form, vanished in themselves; and on the side of form, the essence of the active, soliciting or independent side, was the same as that which, on the side of content, presented itself as Force driven back into itself; the side which was passive, which was solicited or for an other, was from the side of form, the same as that which, from the side of content, presented itself as the universal medium of the many ‘matters’.”
Zinsser has some comments about writing and stripping (well, the academic variety):
Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say. If you give me an eight-page article and I tell you to cut it to four pages, you’ll howl and say it can’t be done. Then you’ll go home and do it, and it will be much better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three. The point is that you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. (2006, p. 17)
I admit that I find critique painful (I’m still working on developing a thicker skin). But I do love revising—I mean, I really love revising. Maybe I’m a bit odd that way, but I take the act of revision as a challenge and a way for me to prove that I can do it. Deborah Lupton’s blog post offers some very helpful advice for responding to critique and the academic revision process.
Howard Becker, in Writing for Social Scientists, also insists on ruthlessly stripping prose to the essentials:
We had replaced redundancies, “fancy writing, “pompous phrases (for instance, my personal bête noire, “the way in which,” for which a plain “how” can usually be substituted without losing anything but pretentiousness)—anything that could be simplified without damage to the thought. We decided that authors tried to give substance and weight to what they wrote by sounding academic, even at the expense of their real meaning. (Becker, 2007, p. 7)
The message: When in doubt, keep it short. When not in doubt, still keep it short.
Over 100 years ago, William Cullen Bryant, longtime editor of the New York Evening Post, advised:
“Be simple, unaffected; be honest in your speaking and writing. Never use a long word where a short one will do as well” (Bigelow, 1890, p. 74)
H.M. Fowler & F. G. Fowler (1908) offered the same message in The King’s English:
Anyone who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he [sic] allows himself [sic] to be tempted by more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid.
The Fowler brothers, ever charitable, present several ‘practical rules’ for the writer:
- Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
- Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
- Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
- Prefer the short word to the long.
- Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance. (i.e., words borrowed directly from Latin, and by extension, Italian, French, Spanish, etc.)
Alas, it appears Becker’s precious “bête noire” from the preceding quote may run afoul (‘afowl’?) of the Fowlers.
In his widely-read essay on Politics and the English Language, George Orwell (1946) offers his own list:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (p. 139)
For Orwell, the remedy for cluttered writing is clarity and brevity:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he [sic] writes, will ask himself [sic] at least four questions, thus: What am I ‘trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he [sic] will probably ask himself [sic] two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? (p. 135)
Cluttered writing obscures the message and the writer. Zinsser and others are sympathetic to the writer, and they recognize that writing demands persistence, honesty, enthusiasm, and even vulnerability.
There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you. Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by computer, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can’t write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first. But all of them are vulnerable and all of them are tense. They are driven by a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper, and yet they don’t just write what comes naturally. They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write. The problem is to find the real man or woman behind the tension.
Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me—some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life? It’s not necessary to want to spend a year alone at Walden Pond to become involved with a writer who did.
This is the personal transaction that’s at the heart of good non-fiction writing. Out of it come the two most important qualities: humanity and warmth. Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalize” the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength” (Zinsser, 2010, p. 5)
Perhaps academics are more prone to cling to our thick, precious prose because we feel a demand to prove and defend (even advertise) our hard-won knowledge and expertise. C. Wright Mills (2000) points this out in The Sociological Imagination and hints at the traces of ‘physics envy’ (cf. Denzin & Lincoln, 2011; Wolcott, 2009) that pervades the social sciences:
I know you will agree that you should present your work in as clear and simple language as your subject and your thought about it permit. But as you may have noticed, a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences. I suppose those who use it believe they are imitating ‘physical science,’ and are not aware that much of that prose is not altogether necessary. […] Such lack of ready intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of subject matter, and nothing at all with the profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his [or her, their] own status. (pp. 217-218)
Becker (2007) also connects the “lack of ready intelligibility” to our academic credentials:
Living as an intellectual or academic makes people want to appear smart, in the sense of clever or intelligent, to themselves and others. But not only smart. They also want to appear knowledgeable or worldly or sophisticated or down-home or professional-all sorts of things, many of which they can hint at in the details of their writing. They hope that being taken for such a person will make what they say believable. (pp. 31-32)
In The Intellectual Life (a book I highly recommend to all scholars, and a precursor to Cal Newport’s celebrated Deep Work), Antonin Sertillanges, the Thomasian philosopher, offers advice on managing the life and demands of scholarly study and creativity. Regarding creative style, he writes:
The qualities of style may be set out under as many headings as you will; but they can all be contained, I think, in these three words: truth, individuality, and simplicity; unless you prefer to sum it all up in a single formula: one must write truly. A style is true when it corresponds to a necessity of thought and when it keeps intimate contact with things. (Sertillanges, 1960, p. 202)
But individuality of style neither licenses nor excuses excess:
Embellishment is an offense against thought, unless it be an expedient to conceal its void. There are no embellishments in the real; there are only organic necessities. […]
A sentence, a passage, must be constituted like a living branch, like the fibers of a root, like a tree. Nothing super-added, nothing aside […] Style excludes everything useless; it is strict economy in the midst of riches; it spends whatever is necessary, saves in one place by skillful arrangement, and lavishes its resources elsewhere for the glory of the truth. Its rule is not to shine, but to set off the matter; it must efface itself, and it is then that its own glory appears. “The beautiful is the removal of all superfluity,” said Michelangelo…. (Sertillanges, 1960, pp. 206-207)
In other words, look in the mirror and take off the jewelry.
Orwell also recognizes the threat of clutter to the writer’s sincerity and truth of purpose:
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms. like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. (1946, p. 137)
(The caption here is perfect)
Annie Dillard, throughout her books describes the ‘fearful’ and ‘feral’ world of writing. In The Writing Life, she lays out the challenge that invariably awaits at the start of a project:
Writing every book [or other creative work], the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do it? (1989, p. 72)
In If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland, addresses the creative person’s fears in this way:
You may not have much ability but what you have, get it all out and be humble and simple and work even if you can think of no words with more than one syllable, and do the best you can and learn by doing much much, in spite of imperfections. (2010, p. 166)
So, here I am, advised to ‘simplify, simplify’ and to do ‘much much’. I guess I’d better get back to work!