Write Simply

IT IS not easy to write simply; in fact, it is more difficult to be simple in communicating than to be complex. But the most effective writing is simple writing. Witness the success of Reader's Digest, a good example of simple writing. . .

IT IS not easy to write simply; in fact, it is more difficult to be simple in communicating than to be complex. But the most effective writing is simple writing. Witness the success of Reader's Digest, a good example of simple writing.

Simple writing is easy to understand. It may convey the most profound thinking of the most intelligent men and women. The ability to convey such thoughts so that they may be understood by the masses is a talent and is much easier suggested than done. But writing simply is a pleasant experience, like getting into slippers after a day's work or shopping.

The editors of one national magazine have described the simple article as the ideal article. "The ideal article," they say, "has been described as one written so that the words are for children and the meaning is for men." That can be a good guide for letter writing, memo writing, report writing, speech writing, et cetera.

The Bible, the writings of Shakespeare, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address these afford great examples of concrete simplicity. They paint word pictures. They convey great meanings about ordinary events as well as about unusual and great events.

The principles that these writers used are as vital today as they were when written. Living today is complex, what with the progress being made in science and technology. Almost overnight the simple be comes complex. But in our social contacts, in our dealings with other people, we need to put forth every effort to change complexity to simplicity. The more complex society becomes, the more important it is to simplify its meaning. This is as necessary when there are only two the boss and one employee, the minister and one parishioner as it is in international affairs.

The man who doesn't try to write clearly enough to be understood is either lazy or affected. And if he does not know the subject about which he writes, he is a pretender. If he does know his subject and cannot express his thoughts, he is incompetent.

The superior man writes because he is interested in what he is trying to say, and because it is vital to him that his reader understand what is in his mind.

Simple writing is not the same as an ABC sort of writing. Far from it. People in leadership and most specialists have graduated from the primer class. There are some things a reader should not expect to grasp entirely in one swift reading. To a quick and practiced mind, understanding a factual report may be easy; but when matters of appraisal and opinion are involved, it is expected of even the most accomplished reader that he will pay attention, mull over, and use his brain. The purpose of the written communication is to make the reader's job easy, but not to predigest for him the contents of the communication.

Give facts exactly and as completely as is necessary. It is more important for you to be sure you have given the needed in formation than it is to get all the mail into your "out" basket before noon. Be precise. Surely you have something specific to say or you wouldn't be writing the communication.

Define problems, solutions, and words for yourself before putting them into writing. Some of the greatest disputes would cease in a moment if one of the parties would put into a few clear words what he understands the argument to be about. When writing your letter or memo, you do not need to define everything, only those words or thoughts that may not be as clearly understood by your reader as they are by you.

Be meaningful. Words need to have not only meaning in themselves dictionary meaning but meaning in the settings in which they are used. They should convey a message, not merely a sound. It is said that certain New Guinea people announce important events by beating drums, passing the signals from hilltop to hilltop. All that the signals tell is that something has happened about which the listener had better become excited. That should not be, but sometimes is, the only effect of letters, memos, and reports. They leave out the intelligible content of their message, or they deal in abstractions without concrete meaning.

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October 1971

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