Simplicity

After many years of professional writing, teaching, and education, William Zinsser was able to pinpoint what he believes to be a writer’s number one problem. He has recognized that problem to be clutter, saying that he sees Americans “strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon.” Although brutally honest, Zinsser makes a valid point. Writers incorporate big and fancy words in order to give their writing an intellectual feel; “to inflate and thereby sound important,” but in the process, they lose the captivation of their readers.

As we grow older and our education increases, it is instilled into students that our sentences and vocabulary should grow, and while this is true, I believe that it has limits.  How do we know these limits though? If we were essentially taught to make our writing more confusing just as our education became more confusing, when do we know when to stop? An answer can be found in William Zinsser’s opinion, that every sentence should be stripped to its cleanest components. The easier something is to read, the faster and more understood the point is.

I found myself in constant agreement with Zinsser throughout this passage. Our thoughts do in fact become clearer through writing, however that can not be the case if what is written includes the “clutter” and “fuzz” Zinsser mentions which are excess words used for nothing more than to appear intelligent. We’ve been molded and sculpted to write elaborate and intricate sentences that make readers cringe, and therefore writing simply and clearly is difficult. It is no east feat to write something that everyone will understand after reading once. Zinsser makes this point, and I feel that he does it well. Writing, in a sense, has become reversed. Writers do what would be unnatural by writing with an overly complicated style, and that is what now feels like the norm. Writing simply is unusual and nowadays only found in children’s books. 

If the clutter and fuzz that William Zinsser wrote about could be eliminated, or even just toned down, reading would be less of a hassle and more of an enjoyment. Students would dread it less and, in result, probably read more. Ultimately, the point that Zinsser makes is very much true. It’s concise and clear; just as writing should be.

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22 thoughts on “Simplicity

  1. I do agree that if we got rid of clutter in papers, they would become easier to read but you have to determine who the audience is before you remove all the “clutter.” If you are writing a paper that is going to be read by the dean or someone of a greater level of learning than you, you may insult them by removing the “clutter.” Sometimes “clutter” is needed to show that you have a certain intellectual understanding of sorts. Also, some readers may like reading more intricate and advance sentences, than having plain, bland clutter less ones. I believe if you do it in the right way and to a certain amount clutter could enhance your paper along with your writing.

  2. I agree that writing is definitely not as enjoyable with all the unnecessary “fuzz”. I will say that I am guilty of adding clutter to my papers though because I will honestly flip through the pages of a thesaurus and search for the biggest words I can find to make my paper sound more intelligent. I definitely agree with Zinsser that the more “inflated” the writing is, the less likely I am to remain interested in it. If writing was more concise and to the point I think it would make reading much more enjoyable. It is hard to cut out the “fluff” though because I always think in my head that without the big words my writing is not as intellectual. It is also hard to make writing concise because as you mentioned as education level rises the expectations also increase. I will definitely have to consider the wise words of Zinsser the next time I am writing.

  3. Just like William Zinsser says in “Simplicity,” Ever since I started writing, which was sometime in middle school, I have always tried using really big words to seem like I was more intelligent and to sound important. And i also agree that the more straight forward and to the point a sentence is, the easier it is to understand, and the reading can get done faster!!! It is true that writing simply is only in children’s books, and i do think that bothers a lot of people, because nobody really wants to hear all these big words, or at least i don’t.

  4. I can easily relate to this article because I have dealt with this same problem myself. Your statement was spot on when you said, “As we grow older and our education increases, it is instilled into students that our sentences and vocabulary should grow, and while this is true, I believe that it has limits.” I believe that as our minds grow and take on new vocabulary and new techniques of writing that we feel as if the only way to solve it is to put all of it in one piece of writing. Especially with more recently obtained information that we don’t quite know how to use correctly, but we hope will make us sound smarter or more intelligent if we use it in our writing.

    Also cluttering occurs most often when one is given a word limit on a paper or any other writing assignment. Authors try too often to add unnecessary wordage that is intended to support one’s writing, but instead can cause confusion to the reader or audience.

    I know that in the past I have often cluttered too much information in my past writings. I try to put too much writing into one section of a paper and can end up confusing whoever reads my work. Simplicity can be a writers biggest fear, but could end up saving a piece of writing from confusing one’s audience.

    Very well written blog post!

  5. “Strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon,” hits the nail on the head! I know in papers I have written before I am constantly having to not try and over complicate the topic I am writing about. Just as William Zinsser said simpler is better. I feel many readers are more involved in the reading if they are constantly not having to look up words, or if they feel they are not on the same academic level. Many times “to the point” authors are the best because they do not fluff up writings to try and portray a picture that could be handled with less words. Simplicity is better for some readers, now there is a time and audience the complexity of writing is better, but in general making your point and stating facts to back the points up is better than adding fluff to prove you know what you’re writing about.

  6. I agree with your take on Zinsser’s piece and I believe he was right to say that our English language has become a cluster of non-neccessary words to replace simple ones. I wonder why people go to such lengths to sound intelligent but through that process, their ideas are blurred by their incomprehensible language. How far is to far in the advance of the language is a great question. At what point does an author need to refer to the basics to explain an idea. I like how you said “writers do what would be unnatural by writing with an overly complicated style, and that is what now feels like the norm.” But why should that be the norm, how would we be able to revert back to simpler terms without seeming “caveman-like?” And the idea that if reading was less complicated in how it was presented I’m sure the number of readers who read for pleasure would surely increase.

  7. I agree that we should get rid of the “clutter” as writers. Whenever I am reading something and the vocabulary is extreme I tend to lose my focus. I start focusing on the words that are being used instead of the actual meaning of the text. Its not that I don’t know the words – sometimes I don’t – its that I focus on them more. Writing that is to the point and flows well is what I like to read. Writing can also be hard to read if it is too concise. I think as writers we need to find a happy medium between being concise (not too concise) and not using insanely complex vocabulary/sentence structure. But you could argue that your writing style is relative to your audience.

  8. I will be the first to say that I completely understand what William Zinsser means by “clutter” because I, too, write that way. I have always loved writing and I have been taught from a very young age to incorporate big words and phrases into what I’m writing to make myself seem more intellectual. It worked well for me up until junior and senior when my teacher’s main goal in writing was for each student to find their “voice.” I had a difficult time doing so because I was used to writing so mechanical and in a certain fashion, that breaking out and finding my own voice was challenging for me. I clearly remember last year my teacher wrote on one of my essays that I was her “favorite robot,” meaning that I wrote in a robotic fashion. But anyway, reading this really opened my eyes to the fact that writing doesn’t have to be complicated and when it is then you lose your audience. In fact, I did read Walden last year for one of my classes and I really understood how he wanted to simplify his life and take away all the “clutter.” The fact that Zinsser used this analogy was very insightful to me and helped me understand his idea of simplicity. Zinsser said “Clear thinking is clear writing,” (202) and I believe that is the first step to make our writing more enjoyable.

  9. i love how you make a point to show us what is cluttering up our writing, what’s holding us back from becoming the best writers that we can be. You show us the problem and the solution, and in a way put us all at ease that we can just be concise and clear and no longer worry about all the clutter that comes with writing.

  10. I don’t think that Zinsser could be any more correct in his observations in this piece. Since I began writing papers, I have always used simple words and then used a thesaurus to look a bigger, more intelligent word to try to make my work sound superior and help me get an “A”. Often times it would work but other times it just clustered up the sentences and made them run-ons. This would end up hurting my grade more than helping me and make me sound less intelligent and ruin my grammar. I agree strongly with Zinsser and that we should make our words and works more simple, not to the point where we dumb it down, but to where it is easy to read and appealing to the reader.

  11. I agree with you about everything you said. If writers can tone down the clutter and fuzz in their writing it makes it a ton easier to read and understand. I used to have this problem. I used to write too much to make my papers and essays appear better than they really were because I would use big words and make myself sound smart. It ended up making my essays worse because I didn’t always get the point I wanted across. After awhile I started to use less big words and used the correct words more often than I used to, thus adding to the quality of my papers. Zinsser is absolutely correct when he says that writers need to focus more on the what they are saying than how they say it.

  12. I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I completely agree with your sentence “As we grow older and our education increases, it is instilled into students that our sentences and vocabulary should grow, and while this is true, I believe that it has limits”.

    Throughout the years our vocabulary has increased drastically. Our english teachers are forever telling us to “use big words” to make our papers more interesting and help us sound intelligent. The truth is, these “big words” do not always make us sound smarter. In fact, they can do the opposite. If our sentences are too cluttered and consist of unnecessary wording, our readers will get bored and even question if we really know what we are talking about. If we are not careful, too much “clutter” can make us sound like we are just writing a lot of unnecessary things to either fill up a paper or make ourselves sound clever.

    I’m not going to lie, I find myself writing too much sometimes. After reading this article I have learned that it is okay to do it sometime, but to try to simplify my work as much as possible.

  13. The purpose of writing is to convey a message to the reader. I agree that the best way to convey a message in writing is through simplicity. However, writers tend to stray from simple writing in order to form a sense of intelligence in their writing. This “intelligence” can cause the message to be confused or misinterpreted. The statement, “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other”, is the primary theme of this passage. A writer’s thoughts must be able to be understood in order to write clearly. Zinsser’s message that simplicity is key in writing could not be truer.

  14. Zinsser makes his point very clear in the very first paragraph. “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.” I cannot count how many times I have been reading a book and I have found myself confused about what the writer is actually trying to say. I go back and re-read what I just read, only to realize I still don’t understand what I am reading. I completely agree with you when you say, “As we grow older and our education increases, it is instilled into students that our sentences and vocabulary should grow, and while this is true, I believe that it has limits.” You are right. As writers, we must know the limits of a strong vocabulary so we do not confuse our readers. When I read something that I can not understanding even after re-reading it three of four times, I feel bored because it’s all just meaningless words on paper to me. When writers try to sound sophisticated by using big words in their writing, they might actually be making themselves sound uneducated by using the words incorrectly. Zinsser could not be more right about the importance of writing simply. As long as you can get your message across to your audience clearly, you have achieved your main goal.

  15. It is interesting that so many of the comments see simple writing as a relief. Although Zinsser promotes clear, simple sentences, he admits that it is hard to do and takes rewriting sentences multiple times to achieve results. I’m not sure that we always think of the writing process on the sentence level, but we should.

  16. Zinsser makes his point very clear that writing has become way too complex. Many writers now-a-days try to use big words and complex sentences to make themselves sound smart rather than get their point across. I agree with you when you say more kids would read if the content in the novel was more simplistic. When reading I often find myself using the dictionary to find words, getting frustrated then just putting the book away and using spark notes. These complex sentences and books had students finding way around reading which in change increases cheating in schools. It is not that all kids are lazy and don’t want to do the work it is more that they the reading takes too hard to understand which results in the student getting lower grades.

  17. I’ve always had trouble of adding too much “fluff.” I’m always searching the thesaurus for bigger words that sound more sophisticated to make my paper better. But after my reading I agree with Zinsser that this attempt can actually make your reader confused and your message won’t be clear. Simplicity is over looked so many times, but it is the best way to convey your message. If you have concise and intelligent sentences the reader won’t have to struggle reading your piece.

  18. So true. As a writer, I have been made to believe that using all of my vocabulary in a paper is necessary. Pulling out a thesaurus is just the norm. If you don’t sound intelligent in your writing, your readers will think that you’re dumb. As a reader, I understand the writers thought trail behind the fluff and clutter, but it does make it more difficult to understand. If they were more straight forward and to the point, reading certain books and paper could be more enjoyable.

  19. I agree rambling on and on and using as many words possible to get your point across is boring. But sometimes I personally like clutter, however I think it depends on the audience its written for, and the genre. In a research paper for example, you’re writing to relay information and share an idea or get a point across. That’s when clutter is distracting and becomes confusing and fuzzy. If you’re trying to prove a point, making it simple and concise lets the reader focus on the information only to make a clear decision whether they agree or not with your point. In narratives and stories, however, I love clutter. I love intricate, detailed, imagery-packed sentences because it paints a picture in my mind. Some people hate in stories when writers spend a page or two describing the scene, but I love it(except Hawthorne, he went a little too far for my taste). So I really think there is a time and place for writing simply, and there is a time and place to let your imagination flow and get as detailed and colorful as possible.

  20. Guilty of the clutter myself, I agree completely that it would be advantageous to tone it down a bit. I feel you did well doing so in this response. Your use in rhetoric beckoned many questions that gave a clean points of view. Writing is not as enjoyable with the fluff. The more one rambles in their writing, more likely the audience gets lost and loses interest. I will definitely keep the words of not only Zinsser, but your response as well. Well done!

  21. As I’ve grown up, I was always taught to use strong in essence “more intellectual” vocabulary in my writing. This my teachers told me, showed how educated I was, but also related to a more mature reader. Through the years I have come to realize, as my dad puts it “less is more.” I make it a point in my writing, to be as simple as possible without causing the reader to feel as if he or she is still in kindergarten. I’ve found that this simple task makes it easier to read, but also to understand and connect with the writer.

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