Simple versus Simplistic

Write simply.

Its one of the first, most frequent, and loudest writing tips I give my students: write simply.  Some of my students – those fond of referring to “individuals” when they mean “people,” talking about how an author “utilized” something when they want to talk about use, and those who have in a place of honor among the most visited web sites on their Google homepages – will see it in the margins of every paper that I hand back to them.  Get it tattooed backwards on your forehead so it’s the first thing you see when you look in the mirror in the morning, I tell them within the first week of school.  Write simply.  If you choose your words to impress, your words lose their substance, and your writing will have little to no effect on its reader.  Trust your meaning and trust your technique.  There’s no need for you to race to your SAT vocab book to finish every sentence.  There’s definitely no need for you to write in that hideous over-formal style common to nervous students writing their first academic papers that makes you sound like an Internet bot that has been forced to read over 3,000 pages of graduate school theses (“This symbol thus signifies the struggle that is experienced by the protagonist in a highly symbolic and significant…”).

My students raise two objections to the charge.  The first, and the easier to answer, is if writing simply is the best way to write, how come Shakespeare and Milton and Brontë and Eliot are so great?  The answer, of course, is that plain writing is not always the best way to write (though in your case it probably is), but it is the clearest way to communicate and the easiest style in which to write well.  Shakespeare, Milton, Brontë, Eliot, etc., before they learned how to write beautiful, complex, sentences with precisely chosen words that spoke with transcendent joy and sadness to readers hearts, learned to write simply.  They were masters of many styles, from the plain to the ornate, and they could shift between them depending on their audiences and goals.  If you read, for example, Frederick Douglass’s personal correspondence and compare it to his public speeches or his published essays, you will notice that he uses distinct styles in all three.  Before he became one of the most powerful and poetic orators the world has ever seen, Douglass learned the far more essential task of pushing nouns against verbs to communicate a message.  You, my student, are still in the learning stage.  Once you have mastered simplicity, you may, if you desire, move along to more advanced poetics.

The second objection is more common and also more difficult to tackle: won’t my writing be boring and childish if everything has to be simple?  For every student who holds to the philosophy that you should never use a one-syllable word when a five-syllable word will do, I have three to five students who have no problem with short, simple sentences, because short, simple sentences are all they can write.  When they hear me admonish everyone to write simply, they smile and breathe sighs of relief, but this doesn’t last long.  Their writing might be simple, but it’s not good.  What’s the missing piece?  How do you write simply, but with power and pizazz?

The key is to not mistake simplistic writing for simple writing.  Simplistic, contrary to its popular use (and don’t get me started on that tangent) is not just a fancier word for simple.  Here are a few of the key differences to look for between simple writing and simplistic writing:

  1. Simple writing has clear structure; simplistic writing has poor structure.

Think about the way a five-year-old might tell you a story:

“We got to the beach.  And then we played in the sand.  And we went in the ocean and we built a sand castle and the waves were big.  And we saw a shark.  And I got a sunburn and it hurt a lot.  And the shark tried to eat us.  And…”

You can grasp the basics of what happened (with a five-year-old’s embellishment), but you would be hard-pressed to retell the child’s story, because it came with very little sense of time or place or manner.  The words the storyteller is using aren’t the problem; the words are fine.  But the words are disorganized and the events they describe are have been tossed around like a canoe on the waves.

Compare to this description from E.B. White’s famous autobiographical essay “Once More to the Lake”:

One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August. We all got ringworm from some kittens and had to rub Pond’s Extract on our arms and legs night and morning, and my father rolled over in a canoe with all his clothes on; but outside of that the vacation was a success and from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine. We returned summer after summer–always on August 1st for one month. I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods.

I’d wager there’s not a single word in that passage you don’t know, and the second sentence is even a little reminiscent of the five-year-old’s story of the beach.  But the passage has a very clear sense of its time, place, and selection of detail.  The deliberate repetition of certain words and phrases and the contrasting rhythm of the descriptions of the calm lake in the woods with the roiling sea water are there to fill in the gaps in your understanding and your response.  If you sit down with it, you’ll remember it once you walk away.  No fancy words or flashy tricks are needed.

2. Simple writing shows; simplistic writing tells.

I have this Galaxy Brain meme as a poster on the inside of my classroom door:

It provides an easy example to point at when one of my students starts grumbling about how literature would be so much easier if the author would just tell us what he meant.  It would be easier, certainly, but where would be the fun in that?  “Juliet is beautiful” – so?  Lots of things are beautiful.  “Juliet is beautiful” doesn’t tell me anything helpful about Juliet, doesn’t make me care about Juliet, doesn’t help me understand how Romeo feels about Juliet.

This example, of course, comes from the vaunted Shakespeare, but look carefully at the bottom quotation.  Is there a single word in it you don’t understand?  Is there a part of the image that you can’t see?  It’s one of his most famous lines for a reason.  He takes the feeling Romeo experiences when he suddenly sees the girl of his dreams – a difficult feeling to put into words – and helps us to experience it vicariously by placing it alongside an image we can understand.  Juliet is the first light that shines into Romeo’s darkness.  Five hundred years later, it’s an overused image, but it still works its magic if you let it.

(Also – those “complicated” writers I mentioned earlier? Turns out their writing is simpler than it looks.)

3. Simple writing draws power from its meaning; simplistic writing draws power from nowhere.

“If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullsh*t.”  It’s practically a proverb now, but it has an unsaid implication that doesn’t get brought out often enough, which is that dazzling with brilliance and baffling with bullsh*t often look suspiciously similar.

Simplistic writing comes in many forms, and the most insidious form is the one that looks like good writing.  And I’m not talking here about the crimes against the written word that get committed in academic prose.  Anyone can listen to the five-year-old’s beach story and understand why that isn’t how we want grown people to communicate their ideas.

Consider the following passage:

While listening to jazz at a club with a white friend of mine, I get so excited I can hardly contain myself.  I want to dance the night away and run through the jungle with wild animals.  I feel powerful, like a warrior.  I feel like I could conquer the world.  But when the music ends, and I turn back to my white friend, he only comments, “good music they have here.”  I am suddenly aware of my blackness and my difference from him, because white people have no soul.

Speaking of no soul, this passage, while it stays away from some of the more egregious bad writing sins, is devoid of life.  It has no well from which to draw feeling, because it relies entirely on cliched turns of phrase and repetition of ideas used a thousand times elsewhere, disguising themselves as insights.  Cribbing all your words and phrases and ideas from other peoples’ work is about as simplistic as we can get.

That passage is my work, from something I deliberately ruined.  Let’s look at the real thing, from Zora Neale Hurston’s “How it Feels to Be Colored Me”:

In the abrupt way that jazz orchestras have, this one plunges into a number. It loses no time in circumlocutions, but gets right down to business. It constricts the thorax and splits the heart with its tempo and narcotic harmonies. This orchestra grows rambunctious, rears on its hind legs and attacks the tonal veil with primitive fury, rending it, clawing it until it breaks through to the jungle beyond. I follow those heathen–follow them exultingly. I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeeooww! I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way. My face is painted red and yellow and my body is painted blue. My pulse is throbbing like a war drum. I want to slaughter something–give pain, give death to what, I do not know. But the piece ends. The men of the orchestra wipe their lips and rest their fingers. I creep back slowly to the veneer we call civilization with the last tone and find the white friend sitting motionless in his seat, smoking calmly.

“Good music they have here,” he remarks, drumming the table with his fingertips.

Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him. He has only heard what I felt. He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us. He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.

Powerful stuff, ain’t it?  Hurston has an entire well of her real feelings, her real experiences, and her real insights to draw from, aided and abetted by a gift for working with words.  And yet – while there might be one or two words you have to puzzle out from context in this one – was there anything in it you struggled to understand?

Simplicity is power.  You always start with a wall between you and your reader that you need to breach, and simplicity breaks down that wall with a wrecking ball.  If you’re going to tap the wall timidly with your fingers, or try to dig a hole under the wall with a spoon, don’t be surprised when the wall stays up and unbroken.

Just don’t hit the reader.  More on that in a future post.

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