Simple Language

I’m a big fan of simple language.  That is not to say I believe in “dumbing down” writing, but I am tired of writers who chose words that are flowery, over-the-top, and ultimately less meaningful simply because they want to look impressive to someone.

In her new book, The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold begins the horrific story of a woman pushed to extremes with compelling, clear language that strikes the reader as both crystal clear and also powerful.  Their simplicity gives the reader the opportunity to be drawn in immediately, but also emotionally slaps the reader because of the concise nature of the syntax.

Writing that uses a straight-forward approach is typically more adept writing, because the writer lays everything bare rather than trying to hide behind their superlative vocabulary.  Hemingway is an excellent example of this, as is William Faulkner.  Many other great writers are gifted with this simplistic approach as well.

When I teach literature courses, one of the areas we focus on is the way that good writers use an economy of language, packing more meaning into each word and phrase by using a careful selectivity.  This economy of language brings about an increased impact because readers are not having to slog through archaic or obtuse language in order to appreciate what the writer is presenting.

As I said, this isn’t a dumbing down, it’s a careful word choice; it’s a focus on diction and syntax that good, literary writers use to convey meaning and clarity.  And when it’s absent, it’s noticeable.

For example, a writer who describes a scene as ” . . . although cool and crisp, the air hung heavy and half-heartedly over the beauty of this spring beginning . . .” is setting the reader up for confusion.  It’s a contradictory statement.  How can something like the air be both “cool and crisp” while also being “heavy and half-hearted” at the same time? This is a type of overwriting, or “writing above your head” as I’ve heard it referred to.

Another example is a set of poems someone sent to me.  There were three or four poems all together, and all of them used the word “cloy” or “cloying” in them.  Here’s an archaic term that needs replacing.  The mere use of the word “cloying” – which implies something that is sickeningly sweet, or overly sentimental, transfers that same meaning to the poem with its use.  Rather than imparting some genuine emotion, the word stands out as a “Look at the cool word I know how to use and you don’t” sort of choice.

The beauty of simplistic language is that it makes the story, the poem, they lyric, accessible to readers who might otherwise turn away from such haughty and confusing language.  Here again is why Alice Sebold, and others, are so successful.  They invite readers rather than turning them off and turning them away with their words. 

At the beginning of The Almost Moon, Sebold lays everything on the line, but in language that is accessible to just about everyone. 

                      “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily. Dementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it. My mother’s core was rotten like the brackish water at the bottom of a weeks-old flower vase.”

Wow – it’s all laid out for the reader.  No guessing at meaning, no hiding behind Rococo-style language, just simple and direct and powerful.  When I grow up, this is how I want to write!

Another one of my favorite authors, Christopher Moore, uses the same simple, direct approach to writing. 

                   “You bitch, you killed me! You suck!” Tommy had just awakened for the first time as a vampire. He was 19, thin, and had spent his entire life between states of amazement and confusion.

Immediately the reader is apprised of the situation, knows much about the main character, and there is no disputing the concept that the reader will be dealing with – a new vampire who isn’t so keen on this alternative lifestyle.  All of Moore’s writing is clear, direct, and easily understood.

There is little more off-putting than a writer who seeks to impress rather than connect.  It makes me wonder what exactly the writer is trying to do, and for what reason.  Writing is about letting people in, not trying to keep them out by choosing language that segregates and imposes.  When writers lose sight of that, they run the risk of limiting not only their audience, but their abilities as well.

So, let me ask – who are your favorite writers and why?  Who do you find readable, compelling, and interesting?  Drop me a note and share some examples.  I’m all for spreading the word about good writers!


2 thoughts on “Simple Language

  1. Tina says:

    Would this be okay for Axia APA format? What do I need to change?

    A Healthy Eating

    Christene Williams

    Axia College of University of Phoenix

    A Healthy Eating

    Thesis Statement

    One must have a specific purpose to inform the audience about what the suggested amount of

    exercise and the way to stay healthy with a diet developed from the pyramid food group.


    Let us reason together and bet a dollar bill that there is one thing Americans have in

    common: overweight. Come on and admit it. Some of us are “junk food junkies.” Most

    Americans are known to live a lifestyle of eating on a regular basis at fast food restaurants and/or

    being addicted to eating doughnuts. Has it even occurred how many students on campus have

    stopped just this week to eat at a McDonalds, Burger King or a Wendy’s? What about Coney

    Island hotdogs? How about the famous Dunkin Doughnuts? Do not be bashful! Admit it. Be

    honest with his self, or herself! All right just as predicted! Who won?

    Credibility Material

    There should be a confession to make. Most of us crave junk food. Since this past

    Thanksgiving or Christmas, how many of us have put on 4 to 10 pounds of unwanted weight?

    Now is the time to look forward to healthful eating because there is a solution. Everyone can

    change eating habits by following the pyramid food plan. Most of us could use some coaching

    toward a better physical fitness. Eating healthy is important for all age groups. Many people

    have a habit of eating whatever they can consume. One of the best ways to eating healthy is to

    control what our body requires. Staying healthy and eating right is a lifestyle that an individual

    needs to understand contributes to one’s longevity. According to a recent study, doctors have

    found that the average American who eats balanced meals and exercises regularly maintains the

    metabolism to burn calories. Knowing how to improve a diet that supports optimal health, each

    person must assess eating habits consciously in order to tell what needs to be changed when

    becoming overweight and out of shape. “Another way to ensure healthy, balanced eating is to

    learn how to divide carbohydrates, proteins and vegetables, so that the right amount of food

    from each group is consumed,” (Kashi, Retrieved November 9, 2008 Portion Control-Divide

    Your Plate).

    A diet is simply a particular selection of food groups which can be modified, or prescribed to

    improve a physical condition, treat an illness or overcome disease. In the quest to shed unwanted

    pounds, it is not uncommon for many to fall victim to “fad diets” which are spread across the

    web and litter the healthy living section of the local bookstore. Some people’s way of doing

    something about a weight problem would be to look for a quick fix. Jeff C. (2008) stated, “The

    scientists hope to move varieties to market that will taste so good, people will eat more of them

    and as people increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables, their diet will become more

    healthful. Even if people don’t eat more sheer weight of the new fruits and vegetables, they’ll get

    greater health benefits because of elevated levels of nutrients and disease-preventing

    compounds,” (Ecomii, Retrieved November 9, 2008). Once a body has become out of shape,

    damaged cells in the body stop functioning properly and the heart will have to work harder to

    regulate the organ systems.

    People who change eating habits and exercise regularly are helping their body in

    prolonging their lifespan. “According to recent studies, the reality of proper eating and proper

    exercise on a daily basis will add 10 years to one’s life”, (2008) “Over the past decade the

    popularity of yoga has grown tremendously in the United States. Many practitioners praise yoga

    for its physical, mental, and spiritual benefits. They believe that yoga not only keeps their bodies

    supple and healthy, but it is a way to help quiet their overcrowded minds and reduce stress”

    (Kashi, Retrieved November 9, 2007 A Newcomer’s Guide to Yoga). Eating foods that are

    healthy will help build self-esteem. On the other hand, people who are overweight have no

    confidence in themselves because of society’s implication toward people who are thin. Instead

    of doing what is healthy, an individual will continue to use any diet plan and retreat to eating the

    wrong foods to find comfort. This becomes a vicious cycle for those wanting to scale down to

    an ideal body weight but only find that it almost always ends in failure.

    When one maintains a proper diet, the individual will begin to develop an acceptable physical

    appearance. If the average American would realize how exuberant one feels from working out

    and eating healthy foods then everyone would be doing it. This should be a lifestyle adapted by

    both the young and old. The older generation was raised to eat healthy from “real” foods.

    Today’s generation should consider eating from the basic food groups and not heavily

    commercialized food products. If parents are eating vital wholesome foods children will likely

    follow suit. Kashi stated that children who are introduced to healthy eating habits at an early age

    have a better chance of eating right when they are adults (Kashi, 2008). Preparing meals in

    advance by making a shopping list and grocery shopping on specific days will help make healthy

    eating more manageable. Choosing foods from the pyramid food group provides the best

    nutrition for all age groups. They will help provide lifelong protection from a host of health

    problems, including cancer and heart disease. Keep in mind, too, that when planning any diet, it

    means making lifelong changes. People should not deprive themselves of foods enjoyed, or what

    their body needs. Just eat less of the more fattening ones”, (Kashi, Retrieved November 9, 2008

    Getting the Good Fat, para 1).

    The Pyramid of Basic Food Groups:

    Beginning with whole grain and fiber, one should eat from 6 to 12 servings of whole grain,

    cereal and flax seed. The average person should have a serving of 1 cup of rice or pasta. 1

    to 2 slices of bread eaten daily is needed for energy and to help keep from feeling hungry.

    Remember that the average person needs to include the entire food group to get the

    recommended daily nutrition to enjoying a healthy lifestyle.

    [Transition: Move from grain and fiber to vegetables.]

    Eating 3 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Eating 2 to 6 servings of raw fruits and

    vegetables is preferred. Eating raw fruits and vegetable will help fill one up not out. These raw

    fruits and vegetables will also help to prevent some bone diseases such as rickets and beriberi.

    Most of the fruits and vegetables are a major source of vitamins and minerals necessary to

    prevent these deficiencies.

    [Transition: Move up from complex carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables and understand what

    is necessary to maintain the proper diet.]

    Limit the intake of dairy products, meats and eggs from 2 to 4 servings a day. For

    people who have a problem using whole milk, try low fat, or skim. When trying cheese and

    milk, use goat cheese and low-fat goat milk. And consuming too many carbohydrates can lead to

    diabetes and high cholesterol levels. Health experts suggest this could result in heart attack or

    stroke in people who are already overweight. Adults need to add more portions of milk or mild

    products into their diet to prevent developing osteoporosis. And limiting eating eggs to no more

    than three a week is ideal. Studies indicate that having any more than that will result in high

    cholesterol levels or even high blood pressure.

    [Transition: Move from dairy products and use fat grams moderately to about 18 to 23 grams

    per day.]

    Restrict intake of fats to less than 30% of the daily normal caloric intake. “Fat is a significant

    energy source and is a crucial part of a healthy diet. Certain types of fats such as omega-3’s and

    monounsaturated fatty acids have heart health benefits. One way to improve the quality of our

    fat intake is to make simple substitutions like replacing the bacon bits on a salad with pieces of

    avocado,” (Kashi, Retrieved September 13, 2008 Getting the Good Fats). Foods that contain

    high-levels of sugar, fat or salt should be used in moderation. Make changes in the diet of how

    often these foods are consumed. Choosing foods that are lean cuts of meat in order to reduce the

    fat intake will help in planning well balanced meals for the entire family. Avoiding saturated

    fats that are found in butter, red meats, processed foods, and cheese is another way to eat heart

    healthy foods. One should limit consumption of “fast foods” or “junk foods” that are high in fat

    and have little nutritional value if one is to maintain optimal health.

    [Transition: Move from fat grams to exercise to help stay firm and eliminate bone weakness.]

    Discuss any weight loss program with a reputable dietitian. A dietitian will suggest regular

    diet and exercise program that will help to reach or maintain the ideal body weight.

    Dieters will be directed to develop a sensible plan for healthy living with a less chance of health

    problems or disease. Ask a family member or friend to coach and/or monitor this plan.

    Remember that the dietitian has recommended starting slowly with the exercise program. Most

    plans of exercise suggest walking at first. Then along with “power walking” exercise add body

    movements to build and strengthen all muscle groups. Expectations of this plan should be to

    restore normal heart rate, tone muscles of major muscle groups and strengthen large bones.

    Make a choice! Do the right thing to one’s body because we only live once. This information

    gives appropriate food combinations and fitness advice for men, women and children to build a

    healthy body for life.


    The basic nutrition given for women, men and children for health and fitness; as well as the

    right food combination is the first step to building healthy bones. By using the food pyramid it

    can give advice and guidance to anyone who needs to stay on the right tract. By eating right and

    exercising this guideline will give anyone energy and helping in staying active.


    (Ecomii, no author; copyright 2008 All Rights Reserved

    Retrieved November 9, 2008)

    (Ecomii, Jeff Cox, Retrieved November 9, 2008, featured smartfood articles)

    (Kashi, no author, Retrieved November 9, 2008)

    • Kim Justesen says:

      Well – I can grade this like I do Composition papers – mark it up and make comments and all – or I can just suggest that you try some revision. There a few things I can say off the top. First, when I was writing this particular blog, I was referring to fiction writing. Technical writing is a different animal all together. If you really do want me to edit this, drop me a note and we can work something out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s