Simplify Your Writing: A Key Writing Technique
Simplicity is an underrated writing technique. The reason is that you want to communicate ideas without obstructions—making things needlessly complicated doesn’t really serve your audience well. Worse, if you can’t explain things simply, it may show a lack of understanding on your part. Writers can fall victim to a tendency to overcomplicate their writing when the simplest methods would more than suffice.
In this article, we’ll take a look at eight ways to make your writing simpler and easier-to-understand.
Writing Technique 1: Know Your Audience
Before writing a piece, ask yourself who the intended audience is. The more familiar you are with who will read your work, the easier it is to communicate in their language.
For instance, if you are writing a children’s book, you know not to use language outside the grasp of children. However, writing an article explaining a scientific concept in an academic journal would not be the place for a six-year-old’s vocabulary. Advanced concepts may need explanations and terms defined beforehand if your audience is intended to be larger than niche enthusiasts. Think about it: if you read a foreign language, do your eyes tend to skip around and guess what the words might mean?
Essentially, your role as the writer is to communicate ideas. Keep in mind who the audience is and what their ability of understanding is. If you fail to know your audience, your work will put readers off.
Writing Technique 2: Know What You’re Trying to Say
To make your writing clear to the reader, make sure you know what you’re trying to say. It sounds simple and it is simple. Ask yourself a series of questions beforehand:
What’s the topic?
What’s my point?
What’s the structure?
Let’s use this article as an example. The topic is making your writing simpler; the point is that there a number of methods to use to make your writing clearer; the structure is organized by a number of strategies to make your writing easier to read. Slap on an introduction and a conclusion and the article basically writes itself.
If you find your writing deviating into tangents or that you are losing your focus, these three questions can help rein in your writing to a manageable size.
Writing Technique 3: Don’t Assume Definitions
This one’s a no-brainer. If you have a large word that isn’t in a common usage or a concept that requires a simplified explanation, include them! Assuming these from the outset of your work reads more like a thesis than something that a layperson can understand.
Also, don’t be afraid to repeat this simplicity throughout your work. Readers tend to scan instead of devour every word. If you are building upon concepts, make sure to consistently explain how these new concepts and words build upon one another, while using your explanations as a motif.
[Note: If you’re looking for an interesting work that illustrates this concept perfectly, look at the popular web comic XKCD’s Thing Explainer. Thing Explainer only uses 1,000 of the most frequently used English words to create a “How Things Work” type of book that describes space travel, natural phenomenon, and other scientific concepts. Nothing is assumed in this work and it is a breeze to read.]
Writing Technique 4: Use Font Styles
Take a look at the last heading’s text (“Don’t Assume Definitions”). Adding font styles like italics, bold, underline and varying the size of text helps a reader know what to remember. Having “include them” underlined and “consistently” italicized may seem arbitrary inclusions, but they’re not. In fact, if you read the bold header text and the stylized text, the result is: “don’t assume definitions include them consistently.”
Simple enough, right?
Writing Technique 5: Shorter is Better
Brevity is the goal.
By including shorter sentences and smaller paragraphs, you avoid the wall-of-text that exhausts readers before they even get a chance to understand your point.
Don’t believe me?
The second paragraph could read: “Short sentences and paragraphs don’t exhaust your reader.”
Your goal is to avoid the tl:dr (too long ; didn’t read) by just writing shorter from the outset.
Writing Technique 6: Don’t Repeat Redundancies
Avoid repetition. Many freelance writers are paid by the word and frequently pad their writing when it could be simpler and shorter. While it might be good in the short-run or for search-engine optimized works, repeated words make the reader lose the point of what you’re writing about. Worse, needless repetitions make it seem as though you didn’t copyedit your work.
Again, there’s a time and place for repetition, but it should be used for deliberate emphasis. When copyediting your work, try to spot words that could use a variant—or eliminate the redundancy altogether.
Writing Technique 7: Quality Control
Keep your quality consistent with your other written works. It may be tempting to include a short nonchalant blog entry or an unfinished article outline as a temporary placeholder, but you can ultimately frustrate your audience and have them go elsewhere for content. Remember that your audience may want to check out your older writing without having to wade through half-finished or incomplete ideas. Keep it consistent to keep it simple.
That being said, if you find that you have lots of different content, create separate webpages that address each outlet. For instance, including your fiction in the same place that your non-fiction work is located creates confusion for the reader. You can add links to your other work, but separation is key.
Writing Technique 8: Omit Needless Words
If haven’t had a chance to read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, omitting needless words is an important point for clearing up your writing that’s emphasized throughout the book. Here’s three examples of the same phrase:
1) “Go away,” said Jane angrily, gnashing her teeth in response.
2) “Go away,” said Jane angrily.
3) “Go away,” said Jane.
Readers are smarter than you think. Examples 1 & 2 feature needless words and actions. The words “Go away” imply a dismissal or anger, while “in response” is redundant when answering an action or another person’s dialogue. Finally, “gnashing her teeth” doesn’t add anything else that isn’t already implied by her emotions beforehand. What does “gnashing” mean anyways?
The third example leaves it to the reader and the context of your previous writing to illustrate why she’s speaking, to whom she is speaking to, and what it all means.