Friday, June 20, 2008

The hard work of simplicity

I have been working on a few projects that require one simple thing: simplicity. While we crave it, work for it, buy all kinds of books and gadgets that claim to be able to make our lives simple, simplicity often alludes us. Recently, I sat with a team member to craft a memo. She kept adding, and adding, and ADDING to it. Finally I said, "Stop. Turn away from the computer. Tell me what you want to say." She could articulate her ideas well when speaking to me and the moment she sat at the computer, she hid behind an excess of words.

I found a quote later that day that gets at the very essence of good writing, and solid editing. "The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. ~ Hans Hofmann." And that's it in a nutshell - that is the motivation of every writer, and every editor, in one succinct sentence. To get to the diamond, you need to polish it, and that means removing the unnecessary layers.

It's easy to understand why we think simplicity should be simple. It's not - it's an art that must be practiced. It can be painful. Simplicity is work. We are complex creatures - emotions, biases, past experience, and a deep need to be understood all stand in our way. The work of an editor is to clear the path. To soothe emotions and biases, while preserving and honoring history and the ability for us to influence and affect one another.

As a quick guide, I do the following four things when I feel simplicity getting away from me:

1.) I audibly articulate the nugget of truth I am trying to convey. And then I write it down verbatim. I start from there. 

2.) I eliminate every word I can without losing the sentiment I want to convey. This can mean many different types of rework: from restructuring a sentence to finding a descriptive word that can speak for a number of smaller words.

3.) I step away from the writing, even just for a few minutes. Sometimes to get out of the hairball in our writing, we have to physically step away from it. 

4.) I only write when I am crystal clear about my motivation for writing, the channel I am writing for (print, blog, brochure, presentation, etc.), and the audience I am trying to reach. This is the framework on which we hang every word.

Wishing you simplicity and good editing, in writing and in life!

Graphic above found at

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