How Simply Should You Write? (A Reply to Paul Graham)

Let me start by making something very clear: I have nothing but respect and admiration for Paul Graham. I’ve read most of his essays multiple times. A few of them have completely changed the way I look at the world. He is, in my opinion, nothing short of a modern Renaissance man. So please don’t think I’m attacking him or trying to tear him down. Not that I could even if I wanted to, but I would never want to. Nevertheless, he has made a claim I disagree with, and I want to examine it.

Graham recently posted an essay entitled “Write Simply.” It’s a subject he’s written about before, especially in “Write Like You Talk.” You should read these essays before reading this post.

There’s always been something about “Write Like You Talk” that bothers me, and I got the same feeling from “Write Simply.” But it was hard for me to figure out what it was, because generally it seems like sound advice. There was nothing in them I could point at and say, “That’s wrong.”

But I think I’ve finally figured out what nags at me: it’s that most famous writers through history clearly didn’t write this way.

Let’s look at some examples. Here is the opening of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”:

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely any one at all escapes.

Now and then, in the course of the century, a great man of science, like Darwin; a great poet, like Keats; a fine critical spirit, like M. Renan; a supreme artist, like Flaubert, has been able to isolate himself, to keep himself out of reach of the clamorous claims of others, to stand “under the shelter of the wall,” as Plato puts it, and so to realise the perfection of what was in him, to his own incomparable gain, and to the incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world. These, however, are exceptions.

Is this simple? I don’t think so. Here is a rewritten version that contains basically the same ideas.

The best thing about Socialism is that it would allow everyone to have more independence. There have been a few gifted people who have had this independence in the past, and who have done great things that benefited society, but not many.

Does this mean I’m a better writer than Wilde? Seems unlikely. Nor is Wilde’s style unusual for his time. Read anything written in English during the Victorian period. I’ll bet that the language is more complex, the sentences more intricate, than an equivalent piece of writing today. Whether you compare Oscar Wilde to Paul Graham or Varney the Vampire to Twilight, you will see this pattern.

What explains this difference? I can think of a few possible explanations:

  • Writers today are smarter than those fussy Victorians, and use simplified language to make our point clear.
  • The Victorians were smarter than writers today, and could handle more complex language.
  • Victorian writers and modern writers are, in the aggregate, equally smart, but fashions have changed.

There are probably good arguments to be made for each, though I tend to favor the last one. In particular, Victorian writers were writing because they knew they had to justify publishing their writing in some physical form, which meant a higher word count. With some exceptions, writers today face no such requirement. Maybe that is sufficient to explain it.

But let’s look at another famous writer, from a more recent period:

I have before me a bibliography of P. G. Wodehouse’s works. It names round about fifty books, but is certainly incomplete. It is as well to be honest, and I ought to start by admitting that there are many books by Wodehouse – perhaps a quarter or a third of the total – which I have not read. It is not, indeed, easy to read the whole output of a popular writer who is normally published in cheap editions. But I have followed his work fairly closely since 1911, when I was eight years old, and am well acquainted with its peculiar mental atmosphere – an atmosphere which has not, of course, remained completely unchanged, but shows little alteration since about 1925. 

This is from George Orwell’s 1945 essay “In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse.” I can make a lot of cuts to this:

I have not read all of Wodehouse’s books, but am familiar enough with them to say that his style has changed little since 1925.

Doesn’t this communicate the same point? And might not Orwell himself approve, since he also once wrote in another essay, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” I think Graham and Orwell would agree on this rule.

On the other hand, Orwell also wrote the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a totalitarian government systematically eliminates words from the language in order to make certain thoughts unthinkable. In the appendix to the novel, there is an example of how this works:

Pre-revolutionary literature could only be subjected to ideological translation — that is, alteration in sense as well as language. Take for example the well-known passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government. . .

It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.

And this is what I find scary about writing simply: there is a fine line between writing so simply that you get your ideas across, as Graham advises, and writing so simply that your ideas become too simplified.

Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” In fact, he didn’t say this. What he said was, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” But, amusingly, someone decided it was better if it was made simpler. And they were right, in this case–but it’s still worth knowing the real quote.

If there’s one point in all of Graham’s essays where I just don’t see things his way at all, it’s this from “Write Like You Talk”:

But just imagine calling Picasso “the mercurial Spaniard” when talking to a friend. Even one sentence of this would raise eyebrows in conversation. 

I love the phrase “mercurial Spaniard.” It’s been stuck in my mind ever since reading that essay. (I haven’t read the book Graham references.) It just has a nice feel to it. I admit I’m unusual in this regard–both my mother and her father loved unusual turns of phrases like this, and that’s probably where I picked it up. Would I say that in conversation with just anyone? No. Would I say it in conversation with a friend who loved it as much as I do? Absolutely.

Graham asserts that, “The gap between most writing and pure ideas is not filled with poetry.” I think that it used to be. Or, if not poetry, then clever and original prose. Of course, this doesn’t mean the ideas were good. But if they were bad, at least you still had some poetry. What do we have now?

Graham’s method is to convey his ideas as cleanly and precisely as possible. The old method was to communicate ideas with some ornament, some extravagance, in order to make them not only interesting, but aesthetically pleasing.

It’s true that bad ideas can be disguised with clever language. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the history of communication. But my fear is that good ideas can also be eroded through oversimplified language. The great writers of past eras were distinguished by their love for language, and their ability to use it in its most complex and most basic forms.

Graham says, “Write simply.” If I’m going to dispute this, I’d better offer some kind of counter-advice. Here’s my suggestion: write memorably. But understand that nine times out of ten, writing memorably is writing simply. Complexity is usually ugly, except when it’s necessary. But when it is necessary, be sure you can do it.

14 Comments

  1. Great post. I never like these “rules” that tell people they have to write one certain way. I think it depends on a writer’s style and strengths. Writing simply might be great for some, but could come across as choppy and stupid in another writer’s hands. Lengthy sentences can be handled deftly or could become a complete mess. And of course, there should be a balance between the two, depending on the mood of the scene.

  2. I have to admit, I had never heard of Paul Graham until I read your post. So I know almost nothing about him. I’m wondering, though, if he is referring to nonfiction writing. If one is arguing a point, a simple writing style may be more persuasive than a complex one. And in the case of procedure manuals or legal texts (like those agreements you have to read and accept before downloading something), the simpler the better. But there is a vast range of writing types between those and poetry, and for each one a different degree of ornamentation is appropriate or even necessary. It’s sort of like those Elmore Leonard “rules” that keep getting shared around as though they’re gospel truths. And speaking of gospels, think about the difference between the King James version of the Bible and various simplified versions. Some people prefer the KJV for its sonorous style. On the other hand, if one wants to deliver the basic ideas to readers who have neither the time nor the reading skills it requires, a simplified version is better.
    And I like “mercurial Spaniard” too!

    1. I think he is mainly talking about non-fiction writing, and that’s certainly where the strongest case for simple, clear writing can be made. But even in non-fiction, the writers of past eras still never came close to this. Wilde was actually a pretty mild example–many Victorian writers used even more ornate prose than he did in their non-fiction. Even in private correspondence, these people tended to use florid language. I read a book of H.P. Lovecraft’s letters once–I think he wrote letters that were longer than some of his stories! (But then, he *was* HPL, so I suppose I can’t consider him “typical.”)

      You’re right, it largely depends on context and what exactly one’s goal in writing is. For Graham’s non-fiction essays, I can certainly see a case for writing as simply as possible. I just find it interesting that the famous writers of past eras seemingly either couldn’t or wouldn’t write something as simple as most writing today, regardless of context.

      Good to know I’m not the only one who likes that phrase! 😀

  3. I think Audrey makes are very good point. Writing is a way of communicating, and how you communicate depends on what you’re communicating.

    As a tech writer, I spent years trying to make ideas easy to understand. To do that I had to reduce the language to the necessities. With fiction, I had to learn to …hint, hold back, maybe even tease a little, because the communication in a story has to be beautiful on top of everything else.

    I do, however, draw the line at ornamentation for the sake of ornamentation. Or maybe I just like simple, elegant things and clean, elegant prose. 🙂

    1. It’s true; ornamentation for its own sake (or worse, needlessly complicated and technical terminology) can definitely be a problem.

      1. Yeah. Finding the right balance is the trick. I guess it changes with every generation though. What does seem to be universal is the insight[2] into what it means to be human. Thus we still read Shakespeare, albeit in our vernacular. 🙂

  4. I love the time in the past where I could write a ‘journey’ a building of words that carried readers along the trickle, the brook, into the river, the rapids and the ahhh….we have arrived at the ocean!” – much as I SO enjoy READING those who inspire the ‘movie in my head’ to play out and I don’t even realize I’m actually READING! that said? I have always talked to much, or to imprecise, etc., according to some – others? I talk in a way that inspires them see something external, or internal to them, in a different way – Some BEG me to ‘get to the point” – others listen and I, fearing boring them, ask, and months later, they refer back to, “I just knew you ‘got it’ when you said….” – or “it changed my life when I heard you say…” – thus, since my stroke? I talk and write, the same and overall, both are hard to follow – overall – thus, for me, if I learn to return to speaking better (as I did when going through Toastmasters) and if I apply to my writing, well – then – perhaps, I shall start writing better things that I don’t cringe then or later or never publish, even on my ‘free, just for musings’ blog – See? Can’t even leave a short, concise, succinct comment – but commenting anyways – I enjoyed this article, appreciated the essay links shared and thank you for writing/posting/sharing all of the above!!

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