Tips for writers: write plainly

I’ve never thought of myself as a great singer, but I enjoy the physical act of singing, the tonal colors you can produce, the rhythms you can establish by snapping or drawing out sounds. But one thing it took some time to learn was that the vocal gymnastics that were fun for me as a singer often detracted from the music I was making. At the lowest level, eccentric phrasing and pronunciation often make the words hard for the listener to understand, whereas they should be sliding into his mind effortlessly. Further up the semantic scale, showy singing takes the focus off the message and puts it on the singer.

I’ve never thought of myself as a great writer, but one of my strengths is that I am driven to work at it. I want to communicate effectively. Good writers can do that. So I study writers who communicate effectively with me, and do what I can to adopt their techniques.

One of my favorite writers is Neil Postman, who despite addressing some of the deepest topics I’ve ever explored manages to write concisely, lucidly, and—most important—plainly. No big words. No baroque syntax. Nothing which calls attention to his writing skills, which are considerable. As I read Postman, I feel like important thoughts are sliding smoothly and painlessly into my mind, fitting themselves together neatly. I never pause to re-read a passage out of puzzlement, only for the sheer joy of thinking that thought again.

At one time my writing was far from plain. As a reader I loved the sound of well-sequenced words, I delighted in a perfectly chosen word, I admired giddy flights of complex phrasing, I rose to the challenge of dense prose. But as a writer I came to recognize that those things never made things better for the reader, and quite often they made the reading much, much worse, just as showy singing does for listeners.

A truly well-turned phrase is one that makes the reading experience a bit more transparent. The best way to develop that skill is not to spin intricate passages for the fun of doing it, but to focus on writing without adornment. The writer will eventually begin to see which passages might benefit from a touch of color or ornament.

Plain writing can only gain its power from what is said, not how it is said. When a writer trusts his message enough to leave it unadorned, a reader senses that he can drop his guard and read with a fully open mind. Trust comes later and needs to be earned, but absence of suspicion is a good start to the relationship.

Write plainly to gain the reader’s trust. Don’t abuse that trust by resorting to rhetorical gimmicks. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Write plainly.


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