Today on Writing Wednesday I’ve decided to let you in on a little secret that will help you unlock your fullest writing potential. Get out a pen and paper, because you’re going to want to write this down…
Nope, this is not a sign that love truly is the answer. This is a helpful acronym. But don’t worry, the advice itself is almost as easy to remember.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
There may be a nicer way to put it, but none more memorable. And if I could handle being taught it by my grade six teacher, I think it’s okay for most audiences.
Keeping it simple may seem like the most obvious piece of advice to give an aspiring writer, but it’s usually the first one forgotten. We are all guilty of cramming sentences full of beautiful, but wholly unnecessary, lists of adjectives or showing off our intellect by using the most scientific explanation for a simple occurrence. Inspired by George Orwell’s legendary essay “Politics and the English Language” and, of course, by the advice given to me by one very insightful teacher, I offer you three important tips for effective writing.
If It Sounds Superfluous, It Is
If even you have lost sight of the original point of your sentence, it’s gone on too long. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and want to list all possible descriptions of an event or to include multiple examples of a point you wish to make, but in doing so you run the risk of diluting the information. Storytellers often worry that if they don’t provide enough information their point will not come across, but in reality adding too much extraneous material will distract the reader from your original point. The hardest part of sticking to a word count is cutting the “final” draft down to size. But word counts exist for a reason: They focus the writer on making every word matter towards the big picture. So even if you don’t have a word limit it’s always important to ask, “Could I have made that any easier for my reader?”
If You Found It in a Thesaurus and Had Never Heard of it Before, Pick Another Word
Having trouble searching for the perfect, non-repetitive word? I’ve been there. Found the most beautiful, intelligent-sounding alternative in a thesaurus? Yup, I’ve done that, too. Gotten called out for using said word incorrectly and felt like a fool? Well yes, I have, but I’ve found the solution.
A thesaurus can be a helpful tool when you are trying to avoid repeating the same word in a small amount of space. However, to utilize it properly you must select only words you already know. Context is key in word usage and a thesaurus is not a thinking human, but your readers are. So while you may have inserted a technical synonym, you could be completely misusing it if you aren’t familiar with its exact definition. This can alienate your readers and disconnect them from the material in two ways. You may use the word wrong and sound uneducated and pretentious, or you may force them to reference a dictionary, making them feel uneducated and still leaving you looking pretentious. Using words you are comfortable with in your everyday life will not only save you from seeming ignorant but will also give your writing the sense of being genuine.
Clichés are Cliché for a Reason
Clichés are the easiest way to communicate a central idea because they are so embedded in the culture and everyday conversation. However, they are also the cheapest way to communicate an idea because they’ve already been said and perfected by somebody else. If you can’t think of a new and interesting way to convey your thoughts, then the words will not seem genuine to your story. If you find yourself drawn to a particularly overused metaphor, take a moment to think about what is really at the heart of the phrase and draw out the part that has resonance to you.
This is not to say that a metaphor cannot carry great emotional weight. Just make sure to avoid what George Orwell calls “dying metaphors,” those whose original meaning is completely lost to modern readers. For example, do you know the difference between “toe the line” and “tow the line”? Here’s a hint: This cliché about conformity has nothing to do with towing something but actually refers to the practice of having schoolchildren line up along a line on the floor for roll call.
The moral of the story: Avoid clichés like the plague.
Okay, so you don’t always have to take my advice.
Which clichés drive you crazy? Of what anti-simplicity writing habit are you most guilty?