Writers: readers will never hold clean, simple writing against you

Alan Gelb is a writing coach and widely published author of fiction and nonfiction, including his latest Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story (Tarcher) and Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps (Ten Speed Press). His work has been featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CBS Money Watch among others. Learn more at www.havingthelastsay.com

 by Alan Gelb

Often, when I am editing the essays of the writers that I work with, I am reminded of Gordian knots—and those long tangled orange extension cords that require 20 minutes to unravel. I feel myself straining to reorder jumbled sentences in which just about everything is showing up in the wrong place. I try to impress upon my writers that are guilty of spreading orange-corditis that readers will never hold clean, simple writing against you. It is the tangled, brambly stuff they most resent.

Good, clean, simple writing begins with good, clean, simple sentence structure. I suggest to my structurally challenged writers that they always try to lead a sentence with a noun and a verb. Readers will not hold against you a sentence that says, “I went to the bank to make a deposit,” as plain and simple as that sentence is. But if you wrote, “Making a deposit, I went to the bank,” you’re already in trouble. For one thing, you’re ahead of yourself, as the sentence starts with something that has not yet taken place. Furthermore, the deposit is vague. Is it, in fact, a bank deposit? Or have you deposited your will in a safe?

If my writers follow my advice and lead with a noun and a verb, I will sometimes see a very quick and marked improvement in their writing. They understand that once they get the hang of sentence structure, they can go on to more advanced slopes and maybe, one day, will even negotiate the black diamonds that Faulkner and Henry James sailed down…or not. They are generally content to perform well on the intermediate slopes.

Insecurity plagues all writers, professional and nonprofessional. It just comes with the territory. Professional writers, for the most part, know what to do to get beyond that, but less experienced writers tend to grab at adverbs and adjectives to pump up a piece that is flagging. They might also try to dress up the writing with metaphors, but these often detract from a written piece and can point the less experienced writer toward clichés. Keep in mind that problem pieces are not going to be reanimated by fussy language. Good clean lines make up your best path to success.

Sometimes, to make my point about the virtues of simplicity, I will send my writers two images: a Shaker basket and a Victorian curio cabinet. Which one do you like better? I’ll ask. I have yet to see any votes for the curio cabinet. It’s the same with a piece of writing. Simple is good for most readers, and simple is a lot easier for most writers.