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Saying Something Simple

This is a note I give a lot in my work with clients. It goes: “Saying something simple in a complicated way.” I know exactly why people do it. But it often has detrimental effects on that one holy grail of writing that people strive for, voice.

For example:

The sky is blue.
The heavens swirl with shades of the purest cerulean.

Yikes. I mean, sure, we want to be remembered for prose that has at least a little bit of flair because our unique authorial voices are what distinguish us from the other guy. At the same time, there’s a delicate balance between substance and style. If style trumps substance, often to the point where the substance is almost unrecognizable, you have a problem. The reader will be lost in your Baroque description and lose the meaning. And that’s not good for their overall focus and, as a result, involvement in your story.

Do I feel like a bit of an idiot writing such inane description as “The sky is blue”? Sure. But sometimes the sky is blue and it needs to be described as blue and the simplest answer is the most difficult: just write “The sky is blue” and move on to developing character or plot.

Why does this bother us so much, as writers? Why do we have to twist ourselves into sentence pretzels and dive into the thesaurus to turn out a description that’s unlike any anyone has ever written?

I call this Writer With a Capital W syndrome. A writer’s trade is her vocabulary, natural voice, and ability to express herself. So writing “The sky is blue” feels like a total cop out. Instead we, especially those beginning writers out there, want to really strut our stuff and prove our worth. We lace the sentence with adjectives or adverbs, we choose really zippy verbs, we labor over every image to make sure that the reader is going to see exactly what we want them to see in their pretty little heads, so help us God. I imagine Writers With a Capital W have a lot of steam coming out of their ears after all that darn concentration.

The thing is, though, sometimes it’s okay to loosen the reigns a bit and let the scene we’re creating speak for itself. Our imagery and writing prowess doesn’t need to be on display every second. In fact, that demands a lot of the reader and tends to skew focus away from the story we’re telling. And that, at the end of the day, is the heart of it. Substance needs to trump style. Not all the time, but a lot.

If you’ve ever been accused of trying too hard, purple prose, overwriting, or not killing your darlings, listen up. There’s no shame in simplifying it a bit and letting the content of the sentence, not the flair with which it is written, stand out. In fact, it may be a welcome break from all that wordsmithing!

Sealed with a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!),
Mary

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  1. Christina C.’s avatar

    The other aspect of over-writing is that I don’t think it’s in character – very few people would actually think like that, or describe simple things that way. It helps to keep our writer’s head in the character’s head :)

    Thank you :)

  2. TP Hogan’s avatar

    I agree with this. Sometimes it is so easy to lose sight of the simple for the ‘there has to be a better way to say this’ moment.
    As you pointed out. Sometimes there isn’t.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Jilanne Hoffmann’s avatar

    Nice post! Yes, to add to Christina’s comment, I would say that if your character loves fingernail polish, then it would be appropriate to describe the sky using the name of a nail color, for example. Or if your character is steeped in Victorian England literature, then your description above might be in character. Everything in your manuscript should be there for a reason. Similarly, if your 10-yr-old male protagonist describes the color of the principal’s office walls as “uncooked hotdogs,” it’s fitting.

  4. Jeff’s avatar

    Guilty as charged!

    I support Robert Browning’s 19th Century proverbial phrase from his poem, Andrea del Sarto: ‘less is more.’ Especially when it comes to a head of beer!

    Keep at it, Kole!

  5. C. Lee McKenzie’s avatar

    Thank you for this. Lately, I’ve found so much of this “look at all the poetic words I know” writing that I’ve been forced to revisit Hemingway just to cleanse my palate.

    Loved “sentence pretzels.” That is perfect.

  6. Sherry’s avatar

    Wow, I feel like the last few posts are extremely relevant to my work! Is this a coincidence? Is this fate!?

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