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Posted, Jun. 8, 2004
Updated, Jun. 8, 2004


QuickLink: A66044

Writing Tool #9: Prefer Simple to Technical

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Prefer the simple to the technical: shorter words and paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.

I once learned a literary technique called "defamiliarization," a hopeless and ugly word that describes the process by which an author takes the familiar and makes it strange. Film directors create this effect with super close-ups or with shots from severe or distorting angles. This is harder to do on the page, but the effect can be dazzling as with E.B. White's description of a humid day in Florida:

On many days the dampness of the air pervades all life, all living. Matches refuse to strike. The towel, hung to dry, grows wetter by the hour. The newspaper, with its headlines about integration, wilts in your hand and falls limply into the coffee and the egg. Envelopes seal themselves. Postage stamps mate with one another as shamelessly as grasshoppers.

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What could be more familiar than a mustache on a teacher's face, but not this mustache, as described by Roald Dahl in his childhood memoir:

A truly terrifying sight, a thick orange hedge that sprouted and flourished between his nose and his upper lip and ran clear across his face from the middle of one cheek to the middle of the other…It was curled most splendidly upwards all the way along as though it had a permanent wave put into it or possibly curling tongs heated in the mornings over a tiny flame….The only other way he could have achieved this curling effect, we boys decided was by prolonged upward brushing with a hard toothbrush in front of the looking-glass every morning.

Both White and Dahl take a common experience or object – the humid day or the mustache – and, through the filter of their prose style, force us to see it in a new way.

We might as well give a name to the opposite and more common process. For balance we'll call it "familiarization," taking the strange, or opaque, or complex, and through the power of explanation, making it comprehensible, even familiar.

Too often, writers render complicated ideas with complicated prose, producing sentences such as this one, from an editorial about state government:

To avert the all too common enactment of requirements without regard for their local cost and tax impact, however, the commission recommends that statewide interest should be clearly identified on any proposed mandates, and that state should partially reimburse local government for some state imposed mandates and fully for those involving employee compensation, working conditions and pensions.

The density of this passage has two possible explanations: the writer is writing for a specialized one, legal experts already familiar with the issues. Or, the writer thinks that form should follow function, that complicated ideas should be communicated in complicated prose.

He needs the advice of writing coach Donald Murray, who says the reader benefits from shorter words and phrases, simpler sentences, at the points of greatest complexity. What would happen if readers encountered this translation of the editorial?:

The state of New York often passes laws telling local governments what to do. These laws have a name. They are called "state mandates." On many occasions, these laws improve life for everyone in the state. But they come with a cost. Too often, the state doesn't consider the cost to local government, or how much money taxpayers will have to shell out. So we have an idea. The state should pay back local governments for some of these so-called "mandates."

The differences in these passages are worth measuring. This first one takes six lines of text. The revision requires one additional line. But consider this: The original writer only has room for 57 words in six lines, while I get 81 words in seven lines. His six lines give him room for only one sentence. I fit eight sentences into seven lines. My words and sentences are shorter. The passage is much clearer. I use this writing strategy to fulfill a mission: to make the strange workings of government clearer to the average citizen. To make the strange familiar.

It is important to remember that clear prose is not just a product of sentence length or word choice. It derives first from a sense of purpose – a determination to inform. What comes next is the hard work of reporting, research, and critical thinking. The writer cannot make something clear until the difficult subject is clear in the writer's head. Then, and only then, does she reach into the writer's toolbox, ready to explain to readers, "Here's how it works."

Bug - Writer's Toolbox
Workshop:

  1. Review a story you think is unclear, dense with difficult information. Study the length of words, sentences, and paragraphs.
  2. Repeat the process with your own prose. Pay special attention to passages you now think are too complicated. Try to revise a passage using the tools described above.
  3. Begin to collect examples of stories where the writer has turned hard facts into easy reading. You can start by browsing through a good academic encyclopedia.
  4. Look for an opportunity in a story to use the sentence: "Here's how it works."

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  • Ah, but the trick is...
  • defamiliarization is fabulous.

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