You’re wrong if you think that making something complicated makes it better. You’re wrong if you think that longer documents are more insightful.
You’re wrong (and elitist) if you think using complicated language makes you smarter.
You’re wrong if you think simplicity is cheap and cheerful.
I know so many people, and have met so many people who have this misguided idea that for something to be of value, it has to be big, complicated, long, and full of a lot of 10 dollar words.
They’ll never produce anything simple, because to them that’s not worth anything.
You’ve probably experienced this a lot. You’ve heard politicians do it, for sure. They try and obscure their meaning behind so much crap and so many fancy phrases that they miss all simplicity.
You’ve heard companies do it too. You’ve heard their meaning dissolve into technobabble and corporate/marketing speak, where there’s always a special word or phrase that sounds fancy and positive, but really just means Screw You.
And if you’re a creative, you’ve done it yourself. Simple just seems cheap, to some creatives, so they try and add value through complications. Writers think like this all the time.
They’ll pad out their work with a bunch of complicated words from a Goddamn thesaurus in the hope of making themselves sound smarter. They’ll never say in 500 words what they could say in 5,000.
Entrepreneurs and tech folks do it too. Their pitches are a prime example of it. They’ll struggle to explain in simple terms just what it is they do, and they’ll use buzzwords and phrases and old paradigms and dumb comparisons, because they’re not ready to stand by the simplicity of what they want to do.
A few years ago, I was asked to write a marketing plan for a major corporation. When my first draft came back, the response was that the strategy was great, the steps were there and the plan was fantastic — but it needed to be longer.
There wasn’t anything missing, it wasn’t half baked — they just wanted more pages.
As though extra length and extra complication could give it more weight (beyond the physical weight gleaned from adding more paper).
The final plan, when it was signed off in with high praise, had no changes to the existing content. It just had 30 pages of bibliography and appendix stapled to the back. What a pointless exercise!
Simple is beautiful, even if only because it can be understood. Simple is beautiful because it can express what you’re trying to do, say, and show without adding a lot of worthless frills to it.
Simple is beautiful because simple allows you to communicate.
I think I learned this from my struggle with a speech problem. When I was a kid, nobody could understand a thing I said to them.
Getting a sentence out was immensely difficult, and I’d stumble over every word and turn incoherent.
My best chance at having anyone grasp what I was trying to say was to say it simply. Keep my sentences short, to the point, and free of any words that were too big, flowery or complex.
I learned that communicating simply was the only way I had to make sure I could be understood by the people around me. That’s carried through in my writing, too. I try not to fuck around and waste time. I value the simplicity of what I do over everything else.
And I don’t see it as lacking value, just because I’m not writing 1,000 word posts. I also don’t see what I do as worthless, just because I deal with some pretty simple concepts around how to live and work creatively. Again, simple is beautiful.
There’s more to it than being understood of course. Making your work simple means you can’t tiptoe around difficult ideas or tough talk.
There’s nothing flowery to hide behind, so you have no option but to deal in the basics.
And making your simple means you can’t pull the wool over your audience’s eyes, and fool them into believing there’s substance where there isn’t.
There are always people who are going to disagree with this. They’ll have their reasons, and some of them I respect.
But I honestly believe you can create incredible prose and brilliant non-fiction writing, and incredible products, and successful marketing plans by making them simple. By not being self indulgent.
I’m a cruel editor, as anyone I’ve worked with can attest. I look at every sentence and I ask what its purpose is. If the writer can’t come back with a good reason, I take a red pen to it.
I’m the same as an entrepreneur. I don’t like “features” I like functions. I don’t see the point of a TV in a fridge, for example.
I do the same thing to my own work. My posts normally rage from 1500–2000 words before I hack them down.
Before I take each piece and part of the puzzle and question it ruthlessly. I don’t want to waste my readers’ time or obscure what I’m trying to get out.
I think you can always simplify what you’re trying to say, or build, or do — if you’re mindful enough of its true meaning and purpose, and you’re not too caught up in it. I’m often reminded of a quote from Samuel Johnson:
“I would say what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”
That’s not the worst advice ever. Make it simple. Cut the crap. Remove the frills. Let your meaning shine through.
Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.
Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack, and the author of the book #DIY, a manifesto for indie creativity.