As I continue work on my upcoming book on writing skills, I’d like to start sharing some of the lessons I’m preparing for the books. The first, and perhaps the most important, is such a general concept it works like an introduction – the idea of keeping writing simple for more effective, accurate English. There is one rule that is taught in almost all settings of writing skills, which can help whatever the purpose for your writing: Keep It Simple.
This is usually presented in a memorable acronym: KISS (in its complete form, Keep It Simple Stupid – but there’s no need to be negative!). It doesn’t just apply to writing, it is used in a lot of English settings – but almost all the lessons on improving your writing may have some basis in this idea. Simple language is clearer for the reader and easier for the writer. Simple structures avoid confusion and complications. When it seems difficult to start a piece of writing, or to continue, using the simplest approach available makes it easier. Start with the one point you want your writing to say. Continue with the simplest way to say it. When you look back at the complete work, ask yourself if it could be simpler.
Simple writing is direct and agreeable. It is also easier to write without mistakes. Do not give in to the temptation to make things complicated!
Why you should simplify your writing
When you learn more, there is a temptation to use everything you learn. New words, new structures, new ideas. There are two problems with this, though. First, what is new to you may be new to someone else, too (making it hard for them to understand). Second, you may not fully understand the new language, and use it incorrectly. Of course, to fully learn and use new language you must practice it. There is nothing to be gained from never using complicated language. There is, however, a right way to do it.
Some contexts demand more complex language, such as in academic papers and when exploring complex or specialist topics. In exam settings, you may also be expected to demonstrate a varied and complicated use of language. In real-world usage, there is little to be gained from this. Even in academic and specialist texts it is advisable to use simple language wherever possible – making your complicated ideas readable and clear.
Knowing when to use more complicated language can only come through a proper understanding of its use. Difficult words and structures often exist to suit very specific circumstances. Consider how we describe colours: a full spectrum of words may be necessary to label different blues, such as azure, sapphire and navy blue. There’s a blue called phthalo. If the very particular shade is important, then the specific word is important. If we simply want to distinguish between something that is a different colour entirely, the simpler word is better, as it is most likely to be understood. For example, consider these instructions:
- All bridesmaids must wear azure dresses so they match.
- There are two cars in the road – mine is the blue one, not the red one.
This can be applied to all areas of language. Use as much detail as is necessary and no more. Keep this in mind and your writing will be as complicated as it needs to be but never too complicated.
There are other times when complex language is desirable – such as when being creative – but even here it’s worth noting that new and interesting language needs to be used in moderation to be effective. An interesting word or construction is made more interesting if it’s surrounded by simple language.
Of course, this is just the tip of the subject – and it’s something that spreads across all areas of writing skills. Something I hope I’ll cover effectively as part of the book I’m working on!