Simplicity is harder than complexity

How this paradox applies to writing

One of my favourite writing quotes (yes, I collect them) is by 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal.

“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

(Photo: Aaron Burden)

I find myself thinking about it a lot when I’m trying to teach someone how to write better.

And step one to writing better is simple:

Write more simply.

It’s also one of the hardest lessons.

Why writing simply is so hard

To start with, most people don’t even get the reason why they should write simply. A lifetime of the wrong kind of education has taught them that big words and interminable sentences are a sign of intelligence.

They’re really only a sign of muddled thinking.

After all, if writing is about getting ideas across, to make the writing difficult is to let the words get in the ways of the ideas they are supposed to convey. It’s rather like people being in such a hurry to get out of a building that they block the exit.

But the thing I find most interesting is how most people don’t realise how hard it is to write simply. Like I mentioned in an earlier article, we confuse “simple” with “easy.”

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As such, there are people who assume that simple writing must be the result of a simple mind, like the person who once told with me, with some pride: “I write on a high level! I expect my audience to step up!” All very well for you, I thought. I did wonder, though, what the audience themselves thought. (Not that there wouldn’t be those who considered the grandiosity a sign of intelligence, even if they didn’t understand much of it.)

There are also people who imagine that simple writing is only possible with simple subjects. And if the subject is complex, of course the writing must be complicated. But complex and complicated do not necessarily go together. You can explain something complex quite simply.¹ This misconception is much tougher to correct, however, as there is no shortage of brilliant minds who are terrible communicators—is it any wonder that smart people are sometimes the worst teachers?

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I usually begin by patiently explaining how breaking complex concepts down is a lot more work than simply putting them on paper. When we have been at this for a while, they may submit a rewrite with some pride in their commendable efforts at simplifying—until I tell them the complexity is down by all of 10%.

Then we go at it again, with them insisting on this or that needing to be said in such-and-such manner and they absolutely cannot make it any simpler without contaminating the essence.

But that is the point, I say: you have not found the essence. Because the essence of everything is simple.

So I do the next obvious thing: I take something they have written and take a few minutes to show them what I mean in practice.

Then some of them start to get it.

Here’s an actual sample from a business-related brochure I rewrote:

Before: their typical business writing version

The devastating effect of the interaction of water and pollution gases on buildings and civil structures has significant economic importance. Water infiltration damages amounts to about 83% building defect complaints and incurs great financial loss in an attempt to repair these defects. These losses can easily be prevented by applying correct water proofing treatment methods during construction. Water proofing treatment solutions only cost about 1.8% of building costs and would inevitably prevent great financial losses in the future. Due to this economic significance, water proofing treatment solutions have become a necessity for structures, and must be done to possess the following qualities…

After: my simplified version

The environment is dangerous to buildings. Water and pollution gases, for instance, are responsible for more than 4 in 5 complaints about building defects.

The financial losses from this devastation are preventable, and very affordably so. Available at less than 2% of building cost, water treatment solutions pay for themselves many times over.

Our water treatment solutions are not a cost; they are a protection of a builder’s investment.

You tell me: which would you rather have?

What writing simply is really about

You ready? Here we go:

Writing simply really starts with THINKING CLEARLY.

Yup. It’s all in your head, to begin with.

It begins by asking the question: what is the core of what I’m trying to say here? And then following that up with: what’s the simplest way I can get it across? Before I would often used a first draft to get stuff out of my head, and then used subsequent drafts for the clarifying part. Now, after years of practice, I can often simplify in my first draft.

And, believe me, I’m still learning. Don’t let the seeming simplicity of these questions fool you: they are far easier said than done. But they are the start, and hard as it can be to think them through, it’s entirely worth it. After all, we don’t (hopefully) write merely to pleasure ourselves: we write to move others.

The amazing thing is, doing that thinking work to simplify your writing really does give you greater delight: you see what you want to say even more clearly than before you decided to communicate it to someone else.

Like much else in life, making things better for others, makes it better for you.


1. If you want a great primer on simplification, you should check out Randall Moore’s brilliant book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, in which he takes on the task of explaining scientific concepts using the 1000 commonest English words (quite the constraint, I assure you).

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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