The Virtue of Simplicity


Photo by Jess @ Harper Sunday on Unsplash

I, like every other writer I know—at least every other publishing writer, spend far more time revising than I do writing the original draft.  I even prefer revising to the initial process of filling a blank page.

I never think of revising as fixing something that is broken.  Rather I see it as immersing myself in something I love . . . and making it better.

In revision, I set out to accomplish many things.  Greater clarity, of course.  Better flow.  Stronger impact.  Often more brevity, too.  But one of my most crucial aims with every piece I write is to achieve greater simplicity.

I am convinced, whatever audience I’m writing for, that the simplest word choice, the simplest phrasing, the simplest over-all structure has the most power.

I’m not talking about limiting vocabulary.  The simplest word that is right for a particular moment may not be an obvious or even an easy one.

Years ago a friend challenged me about using the word “soughed” in my very first novel for middle graders, Shelter from the WindThe sentence read, “The wind soughed.”  “I don’t know that word,” she said. “How do you expect kids to know it?”

My reply?  “I don’t expect kids to know it, but as it’s used I’ll guarantee they will understand what it means.”  I chose “soughed” for its meaning, of course, “making a moaning, whistling or rushing sound.”  But I chose it equally for the sound of the word itself.  In a sad moment in the story. “Soughed” emphasizes that sadness.  Doesn’t it?

Over the years I have developed many techniques for keeping my text simple.

Sometimes I work in short sentences or even in sentence fragments.  Or in verse.  All of those techniques give my words breathing space on the page.  And breathing space gives impact.

Everyone knows strong verbs are essential.  Recent studies of the brain have taught us something every writer should know.  When we read “leap” our brains go into leap mode.  As though we have actually leapt!  Who knew words had so much power?  Well, writers have always known.  Today we have proof.

But I think the most important technique I have learned over the years is one I have rarely heard mentioned.  I examine every sentence while I’m writing and again when I’m revising to clear out adjectives.  (I rarely use adverbs.  A well-chosen verb usually makes adverbs superfluous.)  But adjectives are lovely, rich, useful things . . . until they start bumping one another off the page.

I use a rule of thumb.  I permit only one noun in a sentence to be modified and that noun is usually allowed only one descriptor.

There are exceptions, of course.  Lines where I want lushness instead of momentum and power.  But most of the time, I want momentum.  And power.

Now notice something.  Rules are made to be broken, and once we know what strength a rule gives, we can break it to heightened effect.

Go back a couple of paragraphs to the sentence that begins, “But adjectives are lovely, rich, useful things.”  There you can see I have broken my own rule.  But notice something else.  I broke it to a purpose.  That pile of adjectives slows you down at the exact moment I want to slow you down.

I want you to notice that I am not denigrating adjectives.

I have been writing in this controlled way for so many years that, whether I’m composing or revising, excess adjectives seem to tumble out of my path. As I frame each sentence, I modify only the noun I most want brought to my reader’s notice, and while my text is rarely lush, it is consistently clean and effective.

Last week, a favorite site of mine, BrainPickings, devoted a posting to my recent picture book, The Stuff of  I have long admired Maria Popoya, the creator of BrainPickings, for her fierce intelligence and for her ability to draw together insights from wide-ranging sources.  I am thrilled to have her call out my book.

But in light of our discussion about the power of simplicity, let me hold up the title of the piece:  The Stuff of Stars:  A Stunning Marbled Serenade to the Native Poetry of Science and the Cosmic Interleaving of Life.  The subtitle, A consummate celebration of the improbable loveliness of life amid the edgeless panorama of cosmic being.

Did your mind boggle a bit as you read those lines?

I rest my case.

2 thoughts on “The Virtue of Simplicity

  1. Norma Gaffron

    I found myself pointing on the screen with my finger to follow the meaning of the last sentence as I would do with any difficult passage. And I chuckled.
    Thank you, Marion.


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