Why America's simplicity prophet bungles simple writing

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“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” That’s the mantra of Henry Thoreau, who in 1845 took to the woods beside Walden Pond (just outside Concord, Massachusetts), to strip his mode of living down to the bare essentials. For two and a half years, he lived in a one-room log cabin he built himself, grew much of his own food, and became a self-appointed prophet of an anti-industrial lifestyle. The book that resulted from this this experiment, Walden, is still an inspiring and challenging read for anyone pursuing a gentler way of living on the planet.

When I’m coaching clients, I frequently echo Thoreau. Simplify word choices! Simplify sentence structures! Simplify document design! Today’s business readers live harried work lives. If anyone can relate to Thoreau’s accusation that “our life is frittered away by detail,” it’s them. So the best way we can attract their frazzled attention is to make reading easier. 

Yet when I re-read Walden a couple of years ago, I noticed that Thoreau’s own writing style doesn't match his ideology. A Harvard graduate schooled in classical literature, Thoreau crams his long sentences full of high-brow vocabulary. He may boast of making his own corn cakes from unrefined corn meal, but he writes for a sophisticated palate. A wise professor once advised me to read Walden in the summer because, he said, it's a book that deserves to be read leisurely. That's true—but it's also true that you can't really read Thoreau at any other pace. 

Thoreau’s writing lacks the simple ease of his lifestyle because he places written language on a higher plane than spoken language. For him, spoken language is fleeting whereas written language has the value of permanence, which he equates with holiness. Here’s what Thoreau has to say about the worth of writing over speech: “No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics.” 

That, I'm afraid, is a problematic attitude. It may work well for poets, polishing gems of verse to be preserved through eternity, but it hampers the efforts of everyday writers. When we treat writing as a holy relic, two things happen: we become intimidated by the act of creating writing, and the writing we manage to produce loses the zest of natural expression.

This false worship of writing as a rare artifact is, unfortunately, very common. It creates an anxiety about writing that causes us to fall over ourselves to spin convoluted sentences and to reach for a multi-syllable word when a one-syllable choice would do. The result is a written product that's lifeless and difficult to read. 

But writing doesn’t have to be burdensome. It becomes that way only when we insist in putting it in an elaborate, heavy casket by making it overly formal and unnatural. When we treat writing as recorded speech rather than as a holy relic, it becomes easier to bear—for both the writer and the audience. As we recognize and claim our natural writing voice, we communicate with clarity and confidence. 

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! In business communication, it starts with abandoning the idea of writing as something precious and giving yourself permission to embrace the simple language and rhythms of your everyday speech.

That's why I encourage clients to try reading their writing aloud. If the words don't trip smoothly off your tongue, or if you find yourself running out of breath, then you're probably using too many big words and long sentences. Time and again, I've seen this easy exercise untangle complicated syntax and build up the writer's self assurance. (As a bonus, it also tends to help people identify grammatical glitches they'd otherwise miss.)

What are your tips for simplifying your writing? I'd love to hear what works for you!


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