Clarity before complexity

The constituents of writing are primarily a message and a writing style.

The message is the the idea behind the written words. It is the concept that a textbook explains, the plot that a story elaborates, the universal truth that a poem connects with, the event that a newspaper publicises or the discovery that a research paper publishes. At its crux, a message should be simple enough for a five-year old to understand.

But reading what a five-year old can comprehend is boring. Our mind craves complexity and sophistication. This is where style comes in.

Style is the choice of words used to convey the meaning. It could be simple and straightforward, or could comprise meaningful metaphors and alluring alliterations. It enables the writer to express herself while entertaining her audience and having fun. We are born puzzle-solvers and writers weave clever patterns into their writing to be more interesting. In some cases, the subject matter is abstract enough for the writer to do away with complexity completely, and adopt a simple style. This is true especially of research papers. At other times, an ornamental style enhances writing, like it does in literature.

However, style and message do not get along well all the time. The need to for clarity could conflict with the complexity that style can induce. How does one prioritize?

In most cases, the message takes precedence over style. A simple and coherent message serves as the foundation for good writing. This would be true for all forms of writing, across literature, poetry and journalism and especially scientific writing. The trunk of the tree ought to be thicker than its branches.

Most budding writers (including me) struggle with this prioritization. It is easier to write long sophisticated sentences than to simplify an idea. This complexity is often present because the message is not clear to the writer’s himself. Sophisticated language serves as a veil for incompetence. Our minds and its mechanics are constantly tricking us (and others) into believing that we are smarter than we actually are.

All great writing has survived through the ages because of the coherent message beneath their intricate sentences. This is why the essence of Shakespeare’s plays are simple, yet profound expressions of human nature.

In summary, it is better to write exactly what you mean, before resorting to fluffy and flowery, but frivolous language.

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