“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—those are the thousand one adulterations that weaken the strength of a sentence.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
If I could write a book about writing that boils down to a single point, that point would be SIMPLIFY. Many writers have a tendency to overcomplicate their writing for one of three reasons:
- They want to sound erudite, smart, articulate.
- They don’t understand what they are writing about.
- They’ve never learned to write a simple sentence.
As an editor, I am sometimes faced with whole paragraphs full of words that say nothing, or if they do say something, I have no idea what is it. The purpose of writing is to convey a thought, an idea, or a message. That is not a simple matter. If the reader cannot translate what you have written into something that makes sense to him, you have not achieved your purpose.
Communication in any form is fraught with ways to fail. Consider this: As the sender of the message, you know exactly what you want to communicate. So you say it or write it and assume that the receiver understands your meaning. Maybe she does, but maybe she doesn’t. Unless she checks with you by asking, “Is this what you meant?” she will assume her interpretation is correct. If it is, you’re off to a good start. If it isn’t, you’ll have to restate it. But if she never checks her understanding, neither of you will know that your communication has gone awry.
Unless you are instant messaging (IM), you won’t get that that kind of feedback on your writing. You’ll just send out the message and hope that the reader “gets it.” The simpler and less cluttered your language, the more likely it is that it will be understood. The more extraneous words you throw in, the greater the possibility that the reader will become tangled up in your verbiage. What’s worse is that you may never know.
This is hardly a new problem, but for writers it is a serious one. If you adhere to the rule that every writer needs an editor, someone else may catch your convoluted wording, but it is really your job to turn over to an editor a clear, well-written manuscript. Believe me, it will still have to be polished, but at least you will have done your job as a writer.
Bobbi Linkemer is a writing coach, ghostwriter, and editor, as well as the author of eighteen books, six of which are on writing. Her passion is helping writers at all levels convey their messages through books. She has launched a successful online course and guided twenty-four published authors through the steps of writing, publishing, and promoting their nonfiction books. Bobbi can be reached at WriteANonfictionBook.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 314-968-8661.