Writing Simply

economist cover-1Greg Mankiw writes about a carbon tax in the New York Times. Whether or not you agree with the economic arguments for the tax, it is easy to agree that Mankiw writes very well. Mankiw is a Professor at Harvard and was the Chief Economic Adviser to President George Bush. You would expect him to be quite an authority on economic theory. But in this piece he explains a complex matter in a way that a high-school kid would understand it.

Writing simply is a craft. It requires hard work and practice. James Thurber, an American writer and humorist, was known to go over his writing again and again until he was satisfied that it was clear and simple. His “My Life and Hard Times” was a book that I read and reread, again and again, as a child – and still can, as an adult. It is a timeless classic.

Writing simply requires expertise. You can’t be clear and simple in your writing until you are clear about the subject in your head. Writing simply isn’t the same as writing about simple things. Richard Dawkins has written volumes of erudite stuff about evolutionary biology that is completely accessible to people with no more that high-school biology.

On the other hand, there are all manner of experts who hide behind a facade of jargon and what Thurber calls expression-complexes. Referring to psychoanalysts Thurber says:

…I have discovered that they all suffer from one or more of these expression-complexes: italicizing, capitalizing, exclamation-pointing, multiple-interrogating and itemizing…It is a defense mechanism used to cover up a lack of anything new and sound to say on their favorite subjects, and to make up for an inability to write simply and convincingly, or to think clearly.

Writing simply often requires having an opinion. The reason I like the Economist or Om Malik, is because they generally don’t waffle. You know where they stand on issues. The cover page of the Economist and its headline leave you in no doubt about their position on Syria.

Writing simply is risky. If you are wrong with your facts, you can’t hide behind a possible misinterpretation. If you are wrong with your opinion (like the Economist was, by their own admission, on Iraq) someone will call you out.

When that happens, you go back to your blog post and admit that you made a mistake. Right there, next to where you made it. In italics, so nobody misses it. And then continue to write the way you want to.

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One Response to Writing Simply

  1. ayyappa says:

    “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci

    Like

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