Simplicity in writing

Written English: Simplicity

Writing In English

One of the main problems non-native English speakers face is written English, both informal dialogues which I often set as homework for students, and also formal business letters and academic papers. The most obvious error of all is the lack of simplicity. Typically Portuguese, as with other Latin based romance languages, requires far more words to explain something than in English, however the problem doesn’t just lie with non-native speakers, but natives as well.


First I’ll define exactly what clutter is, as in the words of that great Roman orator Cicero in ‘On Duties’ (De Officiis): “for every systematic development of any subject ought to begin with a definition, so that everyone may understand what the discussion is about.”

From the online Cambridge dictionary, clutter is defined as (a lot of objects in) a state of being untidy: “Sorry about the clutter in the kitchen.” The word literally means a lot of things lying around and disorganised. From that, it should be clear what is meant when referring to writing, that is, a large amount of confusing information: “We want our message to stand out among the clutter of advertising.”

William Zinsser, author of the New York Times bestseller ‘On Writing Well’, opens his book with the chapter dedicated to Simplicity.“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.” He goes on to say “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

An example of a cluttered sentence is the following memo in 1942 sent to President Roosevelt about what to do in the event of an air raid:


“Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.”


Roosevelt‘s response to how this should be told to employees:


“Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.”


Simple and direct. For warfare or emergencies, there is no time for complex sentences littered with unnecessary and incomprehensible jargon, people must be told what to do, and how to do it, as clearly as possible. For a recording of an BBC broadcast sent out to the British at the start of the second World War, see the video in this link (the broadcast is right at the beginning).

Simple and direct, short and sweet

“But I’m an engineer/accountant/asset manager, how does all this relate to me? How does this relate to business writing?” Well business is a kind of warfare; decisions must be quick, communication, clear. Here is what William Zinsser has to say on the matter:


“E-mail is where much of the world’s business is now conducted. Millions of e-mail messages every day give people the information they need to do their job, and a badly written message can cause a lot of damage. Employers have begun to realise that they literally cannot afford to hire men and women who can’t write sentences that are tight and logical and clear.”

What students note about conversations with foreigners, above all Americans, is that emails are direct, and meetings straight to the point. There’s little time for pleasantries in the world of business, as they say, time is money. Which is unlucky for them, because what they are really saying is life is money, for what is life but time? In any case the world is as it is, and so what your foreign colleague wants to know in an email is not what the weather is like in Rio, but rather exactly what stage of the project you are at. He does not want to dig through lines upon lines of clutter, the information he wants should be visible at first glance. He wants to be able to fully understand it without needing to send another email asking for clarification. “How can we achieve such freedom from clutter?” asks William Zinsser, “the answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.” He goes on to give a few tips:

Beware of the long word that’s no better than the short word

Some examples:

  • assistance (help)
  • numerous (many)
  • facilitate (ease)
  • remainder (rest)
  • initial (first)
  • implement (do)
  • sufficient (enough)
  • attempt (try)
  • referred to as (called)

Don’t inflate what needs no inflating

Such as:

  • with the possible exception of (except)
  • due to the fact that (because)
  • he totally lacked the ability to (he couldn’t)
  • until such time as (until)
  • for the purpose of (for)

An exaggerated example using the words and collocations above


The remainder of the initial phase to facilitate the implementation of the project after numerous failed attempts has been hampered further still due to the fact that an employee commonly referred to as Lucy totally lacked the ability to open up the database. As a consequence the project has had to be put on hold until such a time as she is finally able to do so.

Revised version


The rest of the first phase to ease the implementation of the project after many attempts has been hampered because an employee called Lucy couldn’t open the database, and so the project is on hold until she can.


Words such as “implementation” and “attempts” wouldn’t work in the example above using the shorter words (“do” and “try”), and so it’s important to bear in mind that these are only suggestions, and by no means a golden rule. Also note the phrasal verb “open up” has been shortened to “open”, as the preposition “up” is unnecessary; the adverb “commonly” has also been removed for the same reason. “As a consequence” can also be shortened down to “so”. Also there are times when longer expressions (such as “due to the fact”) are necessary for grammatical and stylistic reasons, or in order to add emphasis where needed. “Further still” is an example of one such emphasis.

A final note is that nobody would really write like that anyway, and should just be seen as an extreme example of what can happen if you introduce too much clutter into your writing. A much more natural way of saying the above would be as follows:


The first phase has been put on hold until Lucy figures out how to open the database.


“On Writing Well” is a book I recommend to all my intermediate level and above students. It’s available here on Amazon.

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