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!