Minimalism in Writing: Getting to the Point
Expanding the Use of Your Limited Vocabulary
My vocabulary hasn't expanded much since high school. I've learned a few new words here and there, some new applications for old words, and I've made up a few ('agrication' being my personal favorite). I have a fairly good grasp of how English words are constructed, and that instinct that has gotten me through SATs and GREs, because I certainly don't use any of those words in everyday, or even academic, writing. I write the same way I speak, with plenty of asides, parentheticals, a fair bit of self-talk, and words chosen for their comprehensibility to my reader, rather than their precision of meaning.
My writing role-model is Ernest Hemingway, the master of minimalist writing. I love haikus, because they are so minimalist. Both styles of writing say what needs to be said to convey the most important, fundamental aspect of an idea, without cluttering up the page with frills and fancy details.
The only way this can work is if you have faith in your reader. A writer that has to explicitly cover every possible detail is a writer that thinks poorly of his readers, not giving them the credit to derive meaning from the larger context. The context is what gives simple words the power to express complex ideas. Instead of finding a word that says it all, I think it is better to use some general words in clever ways, rearranging and re-emphasizing to get the meaning across.
Applying Minimalism in Writing
If you find others getting lost in your writing, or taking the wrong meaning from it, you may be suffering from a common affliction of the well-educated (you are well-educated, right?). Try this tips to pare down your writing to just what's necessary. It will become clearer through reduction.
- Read what you have written out loud. This helps you determine if your writing sounds awkward when read back. Since most people sound out writing in their heads as they read, what you write should follow standard conversational rhythms to make it more comprehensible. You can follow all the grammar and style rules to the letter and come up with something so far from how people speak that it is impossible to understand. Following speech patterns too closely becomes messy on paper however, so find a balance.
- Don't use fancy words. If you had to look a word up to use it, best not to use it. This is not only because of the fact that your readers might also have to look it up, but because you won't be as comfortable with it in the context of a sentence and a larger narrative. I usually play around with words a bit, trying them out here and there, before I start using them regularly. Try out new words in safe contexts, where the meaning is clear and straightforward, before you start doing tricks.
- Slash and burn revision. The goal of revisions should be to reduce and eliminate. I noticed in college that when I revised my papers, they always got shorter, whereas a lot of my friends increased the length of their papers through revisions. When you revise (you are revising, right?), look for unnecessary words and sentences that are redundant. Cut them out if they don't fit. Look for more efficient ways to say the same thing. Don't get too attached.
- Ideas and not words. The focus of your writing should be conveying your ideas, not using your words. Nobody likes a person who talks because they like listening to their own voice. The same goes for writing. Reading someone who likes to listen to themselves write is endlessly frustrating. They come across as pretentious, and you have to read through all their fancy prose before you get to the main point. It is a waste of your time. So if you want people to read your writing, don't put them through that. Say what you want, as clearly as you can, and move on.
- Trust your voice. This is the hardest part of writing, especially writing for other people. My sister used to say that dancing is moving with confidence. If you flail around like an uncoordinated chicken, you'll still look alright as long as you do it confidently (to an extent). Same goes for writing. As long as you have the basics of grammar, spelling, and style (where to punctuate, what to put in quotations, etc.), the determining factor in comprehension is the confidence you convey in your writing. Learning to trust your writing voice takes practice though. Writing a blog is, incidentally, great practice, since it get your voice out there, and you learn that people care a lot less than you think. Just like dancing.
Any tips on writing to share? Post to comments
Image source: Gonzalo Barrientos on Flickr