February 2, 2010

Beauty in Simplicity

I used to be an active participant on the critique website Urbis, in principle it has a good system - you upload your work on there for feedback and you have to critique other people's work to earn credits to unlock reviews of your work. It's good because it encourages active feedback, but one of the reasons I stopped using it was because the level of writing on there in general was pretty dire. I have found the site useful in the past, but I just don't want to endure any more short stories written by people who write like 13 year old girls.

Which brings me to the topic on my mind today - simplicity. For some reason a lot of aspiring writers are under the impression that more long words, more flowery and poetic language = good. In my opinion they are missing the point, to use the cliché - they are trying to run a marathon before crawling. The problem with overly decorated prose is that there is the huge, HUGE danger of losing clarity. Often when reading piece using this kind of language, my thoughts are: what a pretentious piece of crap followed by what the hell was that about? I think rule no. 1 when it comes to writing is that is must be clear what you are trying to say. If you can't be understood, it doesn't matter how poetic you are - it's a failure.

I think we all hate having to read something and then having to go back a re-read it again because the meaning cluttered by too many fancy words. If you look at good novels, even modern novels praised for their beautiful style and language you can appreciate how refreshingly simple they are. Language can be beautiful even if you keep the adverbs and adjectives down and avoid looking up the most complicated words in the thesaurus.

Maybe this is a debate about styles and tastes. I like clarity and I like prose which tells you all you need to know and nothing more. I think a lot can be expressed beautifully with simple language.  However saying that there are longer, decorative words which are appropriate in context, it's when a simple word will do and a synonym is chosen to look more "intellectual" is what really annoys me. Simple words strung together well are clean, elegant and effective. Poetry should come naturally in prose and not be forced, other wise it looks like the writer is trying too hard.

Trying to write like a 19th century Lord in 2010 seems a bit redundant unless you are writing historical fiction or fantasy. Trying to copy dead writers from a bygone age when literature has evolved with the times makes one look at best pretentious and at worst hard to read. Writers today are raised in the 21st century and not the 1800s, language and tastes have changed, writing should mirror the time it's written in.

1 comment:

B Chadwick said...

I also was on Urbis for a while, and was boasted by the critique, but after finding some real help and craft at Writer's Forum I look back and was amazed at the stunted creativity there. But, it was a start, and I guess I can't fault it for that.

Myself, I love the clean language and/or sentence - it doesn't matter how many syllables it has, if it's put in the right way it can work magic.

What I think is happening on amateur writing is that people are using the quick click thesaurus and putting in words that SEEM smarter, but in reality make no sense what-so-ever!

Ah, well. That's how you can weed them out, anyhow ;)