When I was in high school trying to write reports and term papers, I had a difficult time. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get anything to sound right. Asking dad for advice, he looked at my futile attempts and said, “You’re trying to sound smart.”
“You’re trying to empress your teachers. Quit it, and make it sound like yourself. Do the research, know what you’re writing about, but make it sound like yourself.” He then taught me a lesson I never forgot.
The most widely read magazine at the time, Reader’s Digest, was written on the 8th-grade level. Although enjoyed by professionals and academics, it was read and understood by 10-year-old kids. “You do need to increase your vocabulary. That’s a fact. But don’t try to impress anyone. Just convey information in a meaningful way.” Dad was right, of course.
That made life much easier for me. And as I write this today, I am reminded of a humorous conversation between my brother-in-law, Paul Anderson, and a scientist in Los Alamos, NM. Paul is an expert auto mechanic and understands everyday life quite well.
The scientist drove up to Paul’s shop one day and said, “Mr. Anderson, There seems to be a protrusion in one of my tires that allowed the air to escape.”
Paul responded, “Oh, you mean you got a flat?”
Upon which the man replied, “Yes, I guess you could say that.”
Whether we are writing or speaking, we should use concepts, syllables, and phrases that convey our thoughts in a meaningful manner to the listener and reader. That’s called proper communication.
The rule of thumb is to say things simply. If people have to ask you what you meant, you may have miscommunicated, or you simply need to explain in more detail. When I teach, tell stories, preach, or write, I communicate in such a way that children as well as scientists can understand me.
New writers, as I was back in high school, tend to use long words and complicated writing styles. That works if the writer needs an extra 150 words to fulfill the writing assignment. But if the writer understands what he/she is writing about, fewer words give space for more content. Here’s a case in point.
Back in 2004 as I began writing Bible Question & Answer articles for a New Mexico newspaper, Ralph the editor told me I had a limit of 250 words per article; and 250 words included the question. I asked, “How can I fully answer a Bible question with approximately 225 words?”
Ralph responded, “Anyone who understands what he believes can respond in 225-250 words.”
That was possibly some of the best writing mentoring I ever received! And I worked at it.
After six months Ralph said, “You’re doing very well, and I’m upping your limit to 350 words. Keep avoiding excessive words while filling the added space with content.”
Ralph then suggested that I select up to 65 of those articles and format them into a book. Following that advice resulted in my first book titled Insights on Faith & History. It has been updated and published in a second edition called Reflections on Faith & History. (See my blog for last week.)
Quoting from a Princeton University Report: “Write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent.”
Combining the advice from Dad, Ralph, and Princeton – and applying it – changed my life.
Keep in mind that writing doesn’t necessarily mean writing books. People write and mail letters to friends. We also write emails, texts, tweets, and a lot more. But depressingly, a lot of that is very poorly written.
So, if any of you want to increase your writing skills, there are several options. Here are only three. 1. Find a writer’s club and join it. 2. Sit down and write something you’re interested in and ask a friend to critique it for you. Accept his or her advice and rewrite it. Ask others to critique it next time. Learn from them. 3. Go to the internet and simply type in: Help in writing better. You’ll get a lot of good advice.
Remember: Simple Writing is Smart Writing. Have a great day, and Happy Writing.