Prose writing style: simplicity and accuracy Reply

‘The best rule for writing – as well as for speaking – is to use always the simplest words that will accurately convey your thought.’ – David Lambuth, The Golden Book of Writing

Video transcript follows below:

O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being—

Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multitudes!—O thou

Who chariotest to their dark wintry blah blah blah

Many of us first encounter the idea of fine writing in an English class at school. Part of that involves close reading of classics written in high style and full of archaic language. That’s all great, but when we start writing our own stuff, we can feel a pressure to affect some grandiose style we’ve come to associate with good writing. Now, I actually quite like Shelley, but I’d no more write like him than I’d talk like him in the pub.

The best rule for writing I ever heard is ‘never write a sentence in which you couldn’t comfortably use the word sh*t.’ In other words, relax – writing’s hard enough without trying to affect a register that’s alien to you. The secret to a good prose style isn’t to erect some grand monument full of ornament and bombast; rather, it’s to use the simplest language that accurately conveys your meaning.

And that word ‘accurate’ is crucial. Writing in the simplest language that accurately conveys your meaning needn’t restrict you to a limited vocabulary. It’s simple to say your hero hiked through a forest, but there are so many different types of forest that it’s hard for me to know what sort of forest you mean, and thus what it would be like for your hero to hike through it. If you tell me your hero hiked through a large plantation of Sitka spruces then I can imagine the branches scratching her arms as she pushes through the tight-packed trees.

So don’t spoil it by having her pause to hearken the ostentatious aria of an ethereal bird.

As Elmore Leonard said, ‘if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.’

Gracias for your videological participation and myriad felicitations for your manuscription.

(The thumbnail image for this video is a photograph by Eric Wienke. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here)

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