Monday, January 25, 2016


by David Sharp

The older I get, the more I appreciate simplicity. The word itself has a musical quality to it, doesn't it? I do find that particular arrangement of syllables rather melodic, but the true value of the word is in its meaning. 

This is exactly what my desk never looks like
It's liberating. It's the difference between walking into a room you have forgotten you cleaned, and walking into the chaotic disarray that is the usual state of my home. (Sometimes when I survey the clutter of laundry and toy dinosaurs and broken crayons, I wonder if I'll notice a guy in red and white stripes with a walking stick wandering through.)

But simplicity is not my normal state. I have a habit of making things harder than they need to be. That includes my writing. I mull over the perfect phrasing. I hold staring contests with my computer for twenty minutes at a time before I type a word. Of course, it is inevitably the wrong word because after all that build-up, what can I write that will live up to the expectation?

The trouble is that the perfect way to say something is usually to just say it. I tell stories every day to family and friends, and only rarely do I stare at them for twenty minutes to compose my thoughts. During the editing process, I often wonder why I used twenty words to say what I could have said with five. The problem? I confuse quality with complexity. I think that if I overindulge in poetic language and compound sentence structure, then my readers will stop what they are doing, wipe a tear from their eyes and declare in a loud voice, "This is the most exquisitely composed sentence I have ever read!" In truth, my writing has only evoked that kind of reaction two or three times at most.

In my opinion, complex writing is uninviting at best, condescending at worst. Either way, it's nothing I want to read. Simplicity in style is often refreshing and engaging. Maybe that's why so many books written for younger audiences become popular with adults too. Seriously, try not to smile at Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin.

Okay, even simplicity can go too far.
I mean, who arranges paperclips?
What I am not saying is that complexity is inherently bad. But who wants to sit on the beach decoding the latest bestseller? Let complexity live where it works best for your reader, in your concepts, in your characterization and in your plot. Rare is the manuscript that benefits from a complex narrative. This is still true of science fiction and high concept genres. A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein is "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." I tend to agree. Let your narrative bridge the gap between your readers and your ideas.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any favorite authors who have either a simple or complex style?


Patricia Stoltey said...

I'm a strong believer in the "Keep it Simple," philosophy, David. If we focus on telling the story instead of creating beautiful prose, the reader will not get yanked out of the story to admire a pretty sentence. I read all genres plus some nonfiction, but I think I love a good high tension thriller the best. For thrillers, pacing is so important, and too much narrative, description, backstory, etc. drag it down.

April Moore said...

I think it is important to keep things simple. To get a scene across to the reader in a clear and succinct manner is a skill writers ought to strive for. With that said, however, I love to get lost in the beautiful prose of some books. Done in a clever and witty fashion, lengthier descriptions can work well. Author Ivan Doig (yes, I mention him a lot) did this so well.

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