Keep it simple, stupid! A guide to effective writing

Writing pad

As a writer and editor, I get to see a lot of content written by other people. And it never ceases to amaze me how complicated and overly fussy some of us make our writing. So I’ve come up with my own little maxim for these situations: and that’s ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’.

What’s the point of language?

In basic terms, language is about communicating something to other people. That could be a story, an idea, a concept or even your own emotions. You say something because you want to be understood, and that applies equally to the written word. So, why do people make their writing long, complex and difficult to understand?

In part, our education is to blame. Academic method tells us to write lengthy introductions and long, wordy conclusions. And there’s a certain misunderstanding that using long words, and plenty of them, makes you appear more intelligent. Wrong: research by Daniel Oppenheimer has shown the exact opposite. People who use long, unnecessary words are usually trying to cover up a lack of knowledge – fudging their lack of insight and expertise by blinding you with jargon and technical terms.

Keep it simple

What’s important, is getting your message across clearly. And the best way to do this is usually in the most straightforward terms. That doesn’t mean dumbing down or removing personality and individuality from your writing. It means understanding your topic, pulling out the most important elements and explaining them clearly. Makes sense really, doesn’t it?

So the key to good writing is a simple one:

Keep it simple, stupid! (making the handy acronym – KISS).

  • Focus on your message and make it clear
  • Don’t use 50 words when 10 will do the job
  • Get your idea across without using jargon
  • Throw away anything that doesn’t help your message

Balance simplicity with soul

Balance is important. Your writing needs to be clear, accessible and easy to read. But it also needs soul. It needs to be interesting and have some personality. Choose your words wisely and make every word count. The key here is that you can’t improve bad writing by adding lots of long words – it fools no-one.

Let’s try a metaphor. Think of a cake. Without any icing it’s boring and too plain. But a little icing and decoration makes a good cake into a *great* cake. Conversely, too much icing and decoration can ruin a good cake – you lose the essence of the cake and end up with a gaudy mess. You also can’t hide a terrible cake under lots of decoration – it just highlights what a bad cook you are.

Let the music in your writing sing through

Good writing is about balancing clear, simple language with descriptive, poetic or technical language. If you can get that balance right, you’ll really start to hear those words sing. And don’t get too bogged down in the technicalities of grammar – just write as you speak. Be natural and the words will flow.

Music can be a good analogy. Being a good musician is not about learning how to build a piano; it’s about learning to play it as an instrument. It’s the same with being a writer. Too much emphasis on learning the technicalities can end up killing the music of the language. Just sit at your keyboard and bash away at the keys until it sounds right.

So, keep that KISS acronym in mind next time you sit down to write some content. Read it through and ask yourself ‘Am I really making this as simple and effective as I can?’. If not, then it may be time to keep it simple, stupid!

And if you need some inspiration, read this letter from Roald Dahl to a fledgling writer where he talks about removing those ‘beastly adjectives’.

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