Quick Tip #4: Keep it Simple

There’s a tendency for beginning writers to think that using elevated vocabulary and elaborate sentences makes their ideas sound “smart.” Unfortunately, their intentions can backfire when the intended audience is left confused rather than wowed by the writer’s efforts.

Instead, the truly “smart” thing to do is to work with the words and structures you know until you start to develop your own style.

I like to think of this writing issue as the “Moby Dick syndrome.”

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Herman Melville was a master with words, so even in the midst of his most complex passages, his thoughts still flow smoothly into a beautiful symphony of sounds.  However, as much as students may admire him, his style is often difficult to imitate. Here’s a short example from his famous novel about a certain white whale:

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

While there are other less elaborate passages of Moby Dick (the first sentence “Call me Ishmael” springs to mind), writers hoping to simplify might be better off taking inspiration from another American writer – Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway also expressed complex ideas and feelings but often in deceptively simple ways. Look at this quotation from another ocean-based book –The Old Man and the Sea – for inspiration:

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 “Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

Still profound, right?

So, when you’re uncertain as a writer, keep it simple.  It’s better for a reader to understand your simpler sentences than to confuse them with complex but muddy thoughts.

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