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Simplicity in Writing

Why do dissertators – well, academics do it too, as do a lot of writers – think that their writing needs to be complicated in order to get the point across? Why do they think simple is – well – too simple?

Many dissertators have expressed surprise when I told them that simple writing is often better than complicated, convoluted, dense, clever or elegant writing. But, they say, I’m writing a dissertation! Doesn’t it have to be complicated, to show that I’m worthy of the doctorate?

No, it doesn’t. For some strange reason, there is an idea out there in the academic world that obfuscating language, convoluted structure and the use of academese are the hallmarks of good academic writing. It’s not so.

I once proofread a book written by a colleague of mine. The language was so dense that I had to make lists of facts in order to follow it. That served only to annoy me, and think the author was trying to dazzle me with her brilliance. She didn’t. It made me think she didn’t know what she was talking about because she couldn’t make it simple. It wasn’t that the information and the argument were complicated – they weren’t. But she wrote it in such a manner that it took a great deal of effort for the reader to figure out what she was talking about.

That’s not academic brilliance. That’s bad writing.

There are two major parts of writing: the factual material/the argument, and the language used to express it. In most cases, presentation of the material can and should be as simple as possible so that the reader can follow it without too much effort or frustration. The very best authors write simply. The structure of their material is simple, the language they use is simple.

Don’t confuse simplicity with idiocy, mediocrity or dumbness. Don’t confuse brilliance with complexity. The old adage of weighing a dissertation in the hand and saying “That’s about right!” does not apply. Think of Einstein – his most famous piece of writing consisted of five symbols: E=MC 2. Then he went ahead and explained it.

Be an Einstein. Write simply.

A technique I sometimes use with my coaching clients is to ask them what it is they are trying to say. While they say it, I write down their words (I write fast!). When I read it back to them, they are amazed that it is clear and concise and, even better, can be used as a paragraph in their dissertation! This technique uses the fact that most people speak simply and clearly. To capture a conversation is one of the best ways I know to start writing if you’re blocked. Write as if you are explaining something to your best friend. Using a speech recognition software is also useful for capturing your words, as is a tape recorder.

Whatever you do, and however you write, remember the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid!

Copyright © Gaye Wilson 2007. All rights reserved.


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