Seal good writing with a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)

Writing guru Ben Yagoda used the Wall Street Journal’s WordCraft column for a reminder on the most basic rule of writing – well, along with the one about applying seat of pants to seat of chair.

His column is headlined “In Writing, First Do No Harm.” Amen to that. Yagoda, who teaches at my alma mater, the University of Delaware, shows what he means by getting right to the point.

YagodaMy students can’t really handle writing “well.” At this point in their writing lives, that goal is too ambitious. I propose a more modest aim: not writing badly.

Take this sentence, adapted from a restaurant review by a student who was roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of ability: “Walking in the front door of the cafe, the vestiges of domesticity are everywhere regardless of a recent renovation.”

In just 19 words, it provides an impressive selection of current widespread writing woes: dangling modifier (“vestiges” didn’t walk in the front door), poor word choice (“vestiges,” “domesticity,” “regardless”), excessive prepositions (four in all) and an underappreciated but pervasive ill, a weak sentence-subject (“vestiges”).

One of the great things about journalism is that it demands simple, declarative sentences. I’ve been a reporter for so long I can barely remember those early days, but I’m sure I resented that rule. Now, as I write fiction, I’m profoundly grateful for that lesson. Start with a bang. Get to the point. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

As Yagoda says:

Not writing badly isn’t a snap, but it can be done. Then you can start on the road to writing well.

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