Writing simply vs simple writing

Hemingway’s writing is poignant, direct, and seemingly unadorned, but it hardly simple.

Pretension is possibly the most fatal of a writer’s flaws. Long gone are the decadent purple prose descriptions that might ramble on for pages unconcerned for plot advancement, for character development, and for all elements of tension and conflict we nowadays deem crucial and mandatory in every word by word as the story unfolds.

Cut the crap and get to the point.

Undoubtedly you’ve been given this advice and I’ll be the last to try and revoke it.

  • Absolutely do not pepper your writing with extra adjectives or adverbs, or, for that matter, any word at all that isn’t absolutely needed.
  • Plant the fewest seeds and let Reader imagine his own version of your characters’ looks, their environs, their feelings, etc.
  • Show don’t tell.
  • Don’t use a fancier word if a more common one will suffice.
  • Write simply.

This doesn’t mean you should accept a generic term when in fact you intend something specific: you could just say pants, but don’t you give greater access via trousers vs skinny jeans?

We can blame our need for simplicity on the influence of television, on Reader’s diminished attention span that cannot survive descriptive tediums and, anyway, might not understand all those obscure synonyms. I can’t believe we’re growing dumber. As a matter of style, we can trace this preference back to Hemingway and his many followers.

But, for all their simplicity of diction, and lack of embellishments or artistic flourishes, for all their simplicity, the most enduring passages — our favourites, the ones we reread for inspiration, motivation, and an encouraged sense of being — are not simple!

Simply vs Simple

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert. Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
— from “The Old Man and the Sea”

Writing simply, powerfully and directly does not end with simple writing. What difference is there? Hemingway does not simply cut to the barest of descriptions, the tersests of retellings, the simplest of dictions: he paces and varies his sentences, first long and simple, then short, then diversionary and complex. We feel the old man’s stubborn determination that keeps him alive with his skin blotches and scars, and we feel a likewise sympathy with the boy helping him despite his parents’ admonishings.

There is a rhythm to writing — a pace, a structure to our sentences — that we can harness to reflect the tone of the scene, the rhythm of the journey, the complicated contradictions of our emotions. Variety! Reader will grow bored with sentence after sentence of “she did blah blah” then “he did blah blah” without the necessary digressions inherent in our motives and emotions going all the way down to our compelling raison d’etre. Trust Reader to handle them. And he will as long as we remember to be truthful.

A favourite destination of mine in the Washington Cascades.

I have a weakness for dramatic scenery and the topo maps that encode it, the more variegated line patterning the better. A cliff in reality will be a densest nearly merging squeezing pack of lines; the summit becomes a convergence of concentric circles; the open valleys that lead us in are repeating arrowheads, plunging V’s rising to each side of the valley.

Likewise, the words of a story encode the action and drama of our stories. Just like we get bored if the story itself is monotonously progressing (either not at all, or at break-neck action), poor Reader will get bored if every sentence shares the same syntax, length, and placement.

So, sure you can favour shorter simpler sentences, but remember that sometimes a moment of indecision may warrant a diversion into a rambling one. A yet shorter sentence will carry the densest weight, from the greatest sadness to the fullest action. Can you feel it in: “But none of these scars were fresh”? Harness it!

Toward this end, added to my long study list is “Artful sentences: syntax as style” by Virginia Tufte arriving to me via recommendations within David Jauss’s wonderful essay on ‘What we talk about when we talk about flow‘.