How To Keep Your Writing Simple

There is a rule that is taught in almost all settings of writing, which is helpful whatever the purpose of your writing.

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). Many writing tips have roots in this idea. Simple language is clearer for the reader and easier for the writer. Simple structures avoid confusion and complications.

Simplicity needs to be considered at every stage of your writing. It can come before planning, even. When it seems difficult to start a piece of writing, using the simplest approach makes it easier. Start with the one point you want your writing to say. Continue with the simplest way to say it.

Keeping your language simple is the basic foundation of effective writing. 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 Is It Important To Keep Your Writing Simple?

When you learn more, there is a temptation to use everything you have learnt, including new words, new structures, and new ideas. 

There are two problems with this. First, what is new to you may also be new to someone else, and therefore difficult to understand. Second, advanced language is not necessarily clear language, as complex words and structures can easily become long-winded and difficult to read.

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, however, complex and advanced language may actually make communication harder. 

Even in academic and specialist texts, simple language is advisable wherever possible, to make complicated ideas clearer.

Knowing when to use advanced language can only come through a proper understanding of how and why it is used. Difficult words and structures often exist to suit specific circumstances. 

In writing a book summary, for example, you would like to keep your words simple so that readers understand.

Also, consider how we describe colours: a full spectrum of words exists to label different blues, such as azure, sapphire, and navy blue. 

There’s even a blue called phthalo. If a very particular shade is important, then the specific word is important. If we simply want to distinguish between something that is broadly different, the simpler word is better, as it is most likely to be understood. Consider these examples:

  • All bridesmaids must wear sapphire dresses so they match.
  • We own two cars – mine’s the blue one, not the red one.

In the first example, the specific shade is important to distinguish from other blues. In the second sentence, the specific shade is not important as we are distinguishing it from red.

This simple example could be applied to all areas of language. Use as much detail as is necessary and no more. Your writing will then be as complicated as it needs to be without being too complicated.

How to Keep It Simple?

It is possible to consciously avoid writing anything too complicated. Write short, simple sentences, one idea at a time. Use the most simple language. You can add more complex language later if you decide it is needed.

Starting simple can require a lot of thought and feel unnatural, though. The alternative is to write however you feel, with whatever words and constructions come to mind, then edit ruthlessly. 

Complete your writing without worrying about its quality or complexity, then remove or change everything that is not necessary. 

Many great writers in English repeat this tip: the key to shorter, simpler writing is editing and cutting. Novelist Stephen King famously recommended removing about 10% of your writing with each redraft (King, On Writing, 2010). The actual number is not important, but the principle is solid. Shorter writing is forced to be simpler.

Careful editing will encourage you to approach complicated language with a sense of purpose. It makes it easier to understand when such language is appropriate, and the lessons you learn from editing will become part of your natural writing.

For a more specific path towards simple writing, consider George Orwell’s advice for writing in practice, published in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946):

  • 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.

With the exception of point 6, all of these tips are designed to simplify your writing and remove complicated or unclear language. Tip 6, however, refers to the choices that must be made when complicated language and constructions are necessary. For a more detailed discussion of Orwell’s ideas, consider reading his entire essay.

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