If Only Simple Were Simple
Longtime readers know that, while I’m a man who gives a lot of advice about being a writer (and put together a little ebook of such advice), I am generally against writing advice. By that I mean that while I think there are many ways to write better or worse, static lists of writing advice are often unhelpful when they are broken down into particulars - avoid the passive voice, no adverbs, shorter is always better, etc. I could share many specifics about why I think these things are unhelpful, such as the endless number of exceptions that always attach to such advice. (Ask someone when they were born and see if you really want people to avoid the passive voice at all times.) We’d be here all day.
But the short version has always been this: it’s perhaps true that the best writers you know follow the advice you find in those lists, but it’s also true that the worst writers you know do, too. The bare reality is that, when we list writing tips, there just isn’t that big of a corpus to draw from. When I was on Tumblr and those viral posts about how to write well would get passed around, for example, I could always predict a good 90% of what was going to be said. There were never any surprises. Writing is an impossibly capacious technology; for it to be of any use to us, it must contain as much of the possibility of human existence as it can. So it’s hard to come up with broadly-applicable rules, and this is why it’s hard to write, and this is why they pay people like me the big bucks.
As far as writing advice goes, I think Derek Thompson’s is fine, actually, and mostly I agree with it. (And I have to tip my hat to a man who counsels simplicity in writing and in the same piece uses the term “antimetabole.”) But I must point out a pretty important contradiction.
Simple is smart. High school taught me big words. College rewarded me for using big words. Then I graduated and realized that intelligent readers outside the classroom don’t want big words. They want complex ideas made simple.
Be interesting. Okay, but what does interesting mean? My best stab at a definition is: interestingness = novelty + importance. Many stories are novel, but not important. Sometimes great efforts at writing and reporting don’t attract an audience because the story fails to answer the silent question inside every reader’s head: “Why should I care?” Other stories are important but not novel. If you have nothing new to add to a topic in reporting or sources or interpretation or framing, move on. It is both grandiose and obvious to say that there has never been a time in human history with more competition among writers for scarce reader attention.
You might already guess the contradiction here: writing simply is the single most frequently shared piece of writing advice there is, at least in English, certainly in America. American writing is a cult of minimalism. And so Thompson is telling people to distinguish themselves only after he advises them to write like everybody else. He references Strunk & White, which (I’m very sorry to say) was once the bible of American nonfiction prose. But if the bible is telling everyone to write simply, and you are telling people to write simply, but also that they must distinguish themselves… you see the dilemma.
Let’s do a bit of simplification, so we can try it on for size.
Eighty-seven years ago the founders of America created a country based on freedom and equality. Now that country is going through a civil war, and it’s not clear if a country like that can keep going. We’re standing on one of that war’s battlefields. We’re here to dedicate the field to the people who died here. It’s a good thing to do.
I think anyone would agree that the first half of the Gettysburg Address is somewhat less memorable this way. The obvious retort is, well, this isn’t Gettysburg, and you’re not Lincoln! And there’s a lot of that sort of thing in the world of writing advice, this constant insistence that whatever you’re writing about, it’s not that important, that whoever you are, you’re not that important, that your writing isn’t that important…. That’s no way to go about having a craft. I don’t know why people have decided that there’s virtue in seeing your work as trivial, in writing, but I’m pretty damn opposed to it. For a lot of reasons, a primary one being that this can be a brutal business, and if you don’t take it seriously then the hard financial times will compel you to quit. That’s one of my foremost pieces of life advice for anyone, actually, to take yourself seriously in a culture full of people trying to build self-defensive shields by trivializing their own lives: take yourself seriously, because no one else is going to do it for you.
For the record, while I think writing advice is mostly useless, I do very much believe in the teaching of writing, and I have been agonizing over an essay on how best to do it for months. I taught writing for twelve years, from freshmen to grad students, and I keep my own counsel on what the average young writer needs to learn. And while it was not unusual for my students to reach for registers they could not access and attempt constructions they could not engineer, the right guidance was never to tell them not to try.
No, if minimalism was the cure to what ails American writing, it would have been cured long ago. It’s been the style since, I don’t know, Bret Harte? (Not Bret Hart.) At some point we have to ask whether something can really be the cure if it’s been pushed as such for a century. And minimalism, simplicity, less is more - this vision has indeed been pushed, by every writing teacher and in every textbook, how-to pamphlet, and viral essay written by someone who’s entirely too impressed with their own jaundiced cynicism. Advice has to work to be useful. Look, I’ll give you this challenge: find a list of writing advice online that does not suggest that less is more. You’ll have a hard time.
The people who give this advice are well-intentioned. I think the most sympathetic reading of their advice is that it’s easiest to write simply and that, when experienced, they may graduate to write with complexity. But I just don’t agree with the premise. I think, in fact, that writing simply can be some of the hardest writing of all. To me trying to write with self-conscious simplicity is like going from playing the guitar with an immense amount of distortion to playing with nothing but the barest unaltered tone: you find there is nowhere to hide.
The whole discourse, I should point out, depends on the idea that there is something wrong with how the kids these days write. As I’ve said before, I actually think the average professional writer these days can write better prose than at any time in the past. This is due to one of the few unalloyed goods the internet has provided, the opportunity for relentlessly iterative processes. They put their writing into the world, it is critiqued, they write more, they put it out again, repeat. No pre-internet generation ever enjoyed anything remotely like the speed with which today’s writers receive feedback and adjust accordingly, nor were they ever afforded the advantage of such deep and rich audiences. But I suspect Thompson and others give advice not because they believe the kids can’t write, but simply because the sheer economics of the profession are so brutal, and how do you give advice that fixes that? So they give what advice they can, and hope that craft can make the dollars stretch further. Perhaps for the lucky and talented, sometimes, it still can.
In part because the industry can be so brutal, I jealously horde my right to play with language in the style I desire and the register I need. That includes writing with complexity that which I could perhaps write with simplicity. (I never said my work was for everyone.) Each piece, each essay, each post has its own programming language, no less real or rule-bound than Java or C++, and just as with coding you can break the code only if you’re clever and elegant enough. The beauty lies in setting the rules as you go and seeing how far you can take them. Sometimes, when called for, I will reach into an archaic vocabulary and stay there awhile, try out the furniture, decorating my sentences with ancient constructions so recklessly that they take the shape of rusted cities, antique and corroded. I like to be profligate in my lexicon and spare in my syntax, until the moment it’s time to do the opposite. Sometimes I work the words until they’re as brown as Winston Churchill’s scotch and as supple as a grandmother’s couch, beating them relentlessly until they yield to my inscrutable desires. Sometimes I write simply. It all depends. The point is that you cannot take recourse in simplicity while you’re young and inexperienced, hoping to hide there, until you become a good writer. It’s like trying to hide out on land until you become a good swimmer.
Words are beautiful things, friends. Big ones and small ones, simple ones and complex. No one should go in fear of them. Certainly not writers. For the record, I think you should write as if you believe that, someday, you will write as well as Lincoln did at Gettysburg. If you don’t, why write at all?