From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

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The Case for Simple Writing

arrowsWhat is “good” writing? Many people mistakenly consider “good” writing to be characterized by long, flowing, flowery sentences that test, tease, and bend the rigid rules of grammar, using countless commas and unnecessary language and verbiage to lull the reader into a sense of complacency and confusion; that is, until the reader receives the pseudo-break of a semicolon, only to be thrown back into the baffling, confusing, and some could say perplexing, depths of a sentence that never seems to reach its foregone and tragically inevitable conclusion. There is a place for sentences like this, and that place is your personal diary or journal. However, superfluous writing does not belong in academic essays. In fact, I think that academic writing should be the exact opposite; it should be simple.

In every piece of writing, the writer and the reader play unspoken roles. The writer is there to communicate ideas to the reader. The reader is there to interpret those ideas. As a writer, why make the reader’s role more difficult than it needs to be? To me, the best essays are clearly written and well-organized. They have concise, arguable thesis statements. They have well-written paragraphs that are situated in a predictable, structured fashion. They do not contain writing that serves no purpose other than to confuse the reader or to put the writer’s extensive vocabulary on display. Once again, the writer’s role is to communicate ideas to the reader. The best essays are the ones that do so in the clearest way possible.

My defense of simple writing may seem like a defense of boring writing by default, but I disagree. Unnecessarily long sentences exhaust the reader and steal attention from the piece as a whole. Think of every sentence as a simple brushstroke. Individually, a singular brushstroke seems insignificant. However, once the artist combines that brushstroke with others, the piece as a whole becomes clear. Writing, like any art form, is often at its best when it is simple and accessible. This notion especially holds true in the field of academic writing, where the writing that seems dull actually shines the brightest.

Write What You Know

Writing what we know is not writing what has happened to us, but rather writing through the lens of what has happened to us.

A lot of writing advice is really useful — “show, don’t tell”, “kill your darlings”, and “write every day” have been pretty clear and reliable to me. However, one piece of writing advice that never failed to confuse me was “write what you know.” This convenient phrase sounds easy in the moment, whether you read it from a list of writing tips or a mentor urges you onward with an inspiring tone.

“Ah,” you think. “Of course. Write what I know — what else would I write?”

It’s not until you’re sitting in front of a blank screen, the blinking cursor taunting you, that you realize how terribly unclear this advice is. The barrage of questions starts:

What do I know? Do I write about my life? Do I write about the books and poetry I’ve read? Have I read the right authors? Do I know enough about my subject? Do I even know anything?

The doubt starts to creep in. Writers have complicated, full lives, right? They’re artists, so they have to be tortured, or worldly. I have so much life I haven’t lived! What do I possibly have to offer?

perspectiveOver time, I have come to find that this deceptively simple saying is pretty misleading. For me, it has more to do with perspective. Writing what we know is not writing what has happened to us, but rather writing through the lens of what has happened to us. In other words, we write with the eyes through which we see the world.

The best way I can illustrate this is to have you picture a simple scene: a horse runs through a field.

Picture it. Really picture it, every last detail, like you are living it right there and now. Got it?

Here’s what I see: A black horse gallops through a field of overgrown and wild grass. The sunlight ripples on it like on the vast ocean. It’s distant and yet the earth vibrates as it thunders past, the center of everything. Then it’s gone.

I’m willing to bet that’s not what you saw, because that’s not what you know. The colors of that (very short) story were impermanence and vastness and darkness and light. The colors of your story were likely something different, but beautiful nevertheless.

I hope that makes “write what you know” a little clearer. If not, don’t be afraid to write a little of what you don’t know, just as long as you’re writing something.


Review: Tiny Beautiful Things

“You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.”

strayed_bookcoverIn Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed provides one of the most elegant, sweepingly empathetic perspectives on life and love that I have ever read. Whether she is reflecting on writer’s block, the stages of grief, or marriage jitters, her words are drawn directly from her wealth of hard-earned wisdom and unconditional compassion. I stayed up long hours into the night with this book over winter break, rereading sentence after beautiful sentence. Each page gripped me as a reader and inspired me as a writer.   

The book is a collection of letters Strayed has received throughout her time as “Sugar,” an advice columnist for In response to a mother grieving her miscarried daughter, she recounts her experience as a youth advocate for a group of struggling preteen girls. She gives her letter-writer the same advice her students received: their circumstances will not become any less painful, so to escape it, they will have to “reach.”

Strayed answers many of the letters in this way; her personal anecdotes create an instant bond of lived experience that underlies her responses. What makes her advice so poignant is that rather than directly answering her readers’ questions, she contextualizes them. She reminds a young, insecure writer not to expect instant success. She tells a hesitant boyfriend that the terms of “I love you” can change. By broadening her readers’ scope of consideration, Strayed empowers them to see their emotions as valid. With the acceptance of that simple thought, so much is possible.

Two of my friends and fellow WRC consultants recommended Tiny Beautiful Things to me, and I’m so grateful that this book appeared in my life during college. In an environment that always demands that we have the “right” answers–whether on Scantrons or in interviews–Strayed’s radical empathy reminds me that they don’t exist. There will never be a time where we become objectively enough: a good enough writer, student, friend. Instead, we can only keep trying. We can keep reaching out to the people around us and challenging ourselves to higher levels of authenticity. So long as we “give it all [we] got,” we are more than enough.

Check out the book and Strayed’s column in the links below; you owe it to yourself.  

Tiny Beautiful Things

Dear Sugar Column

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