Don’t Simply Write Simply

Paul Graham wrote an essay advocating simple writing. Though he does briefly mention one should be intentional about writing style (as opposed to embracing simplicity at all times), I’d like to shed more light on this qualification.

Of course simple writing does not equal to simple ideas, but Graham’s argument is so heavily lopsided that it renders itself a less solid one. This narrative that simplicity crowns other forms of style is precarious. It obscures the complexity in reading and writing.

Certainly, simple ideas are just like simple writings—as Graham says, ask little from readers. Compared with showing contradictions between competing views, one simple idea is easier to understand and thus much easier to spread.

As a result, readers likely leave Graham’s essay with a conviction that “Yep! I should write more simply.” instead of more confusion like “Huh, I wonder what I should do with my next piece.” I’d prefer the latter, where my readers are left with more open space to think for themselves. After all, choosing between simple writing and fancy writing is not an either-or dilemma but an art of balancing this and that.

The Art of Balance

Different writings require different strategies. While scientific papers and state policies should aim for simplicity, novelists and columnists might go for other routes.

It really depends on the purpose of writing—what do you want to achieve with it, as well as the audience—who you are writing for. Are you trying to tell a story, deliver a message, or document your life? Do you want to appeal to the mass, address the experts, or merely speak to your future self?

When your goal is persuasion, you want to be succinct. You vary the combination of length and wording to better convey your opinions. Once you enter the realm of artistic expression, you might prioritize your inner voice. You make use of all language tools at hand to pull off a meticulous craft.

However, the reality is we often write with a mix of purposes to a mix of audiences. We want to be heard and use words dear to our hearts. It’s like walking on a wire. Torn by forces that go in different directions, we need to decide for ourselves what’s appropriate each time.

The Medium is the Message

Graham emphasizes a lot on “ideas”. He argues that by making writings simple and easy to read, one can have his or her ideas better received. Graham’s goal for writing is that “the ideas leap into your head and you barely notice the words that got them there.”

It seems like Graham is one of those who will applaud Elon Mask’s Neuralink. Since the only thing they care about is if they can grab the gist in the fastest fashion. The efficiency of transmitting ideas trumps everything else.

To me, this quest for only the idea falls short by ignoring the medium idea resides. The media critic Marshall McLuhan had eloquently said: “The medium is the message.”

The form matters. The choice of words and structures manifests the writer’s personality and point of view. Not only the ideas but also the ways author chooses to present them make a writing unique. Treating words as no more than a bunch of idea containers will lead to a sameness in writing. It is those little quirks, here and there, rhetorics, witty punch lines, carefully choreographed flows and rhythms, that make reading a joy.

The Journey is the Reward

Focusing solely on the ideas is another way to say “I want the outcome, not the process.” I disagree.

However I want to become a writer, I don’t want a book written for me. I don’t want to skip all the hardships that get me there. It’s the process of trudging through it that marks the book a meaningful fruit.

The same applies to reading. Found classics hard to read? That’s right. It’s supposed to be hard. The knowledge is not given, and you need to earn it. If we never read anything we don’t understand, how could we learn anything at all?

Therefore, I am uncomfortable with the idea of making our writing as easy and frictionless as possible. Treating readers as some three-year-olds and catering to them with digestible and disburdening content do not honor what it means to be alive as human being.

The real “accessibility” means anyone can access anything. It means we acknowledge everyone’s potential to progress and grow. It means we trust in everyone’s ability to stretch themselves and go beyond.

Sure, there should be materials for beginners. And there should be materials that help them march into masters. There’s no shame in requiring efforts from readers. Instead, ask for it. Not everyone should write simply.

Embrace Uselessness

Reducing writings to a series of ideas also implies that the purpose we read is to look for these ideas. It’s partially true. Other than reading for learning, there’s also reading for enjoyment.

In fact, we care about how we feel while reading as much as what we can get from a book. That’s why services like Blinkist bug me. They discard the form and disregard the process.

These services spare no effort to increase the “signal-to-noise ratio” by eliminating all noises. The problem is that they have arbitrarily decided for readers what counts as signals and what counts as noises.

Comprehension is not the only goal in reading. We may not completely understand Benjamin’s study of French lyric poet Charles Baudelaire, but in the journey of reading, we are invited to wander on the street of late-19th-century Paris. The text enchants us with the profundity of its thoughts as well as the beauty of its language.

This is a different kind of reading that, when we read, we don’t search for anything in particular, we cast ourselves into this wondrous forest and get lost in pages.

Reading doesn’t always have to be useful, neither does writing. Given Graham’s argument for writing simply, it’s not surprising that he has another essay titled “How to write usefully”. Well, I’d like to propose otherwise.

How about writing uselessly?

Write Beautifully

Write poems, proses, and journals. Write for yourself, write freely, write beautifully.

Write without an agenda. Experiment with words. Mess around structures. Introduce weird metaphors that capture how you perceive the world.

The truth is that people rarely change their minds through rational deduction. They change their minds through experience. By evoking people’s feelings and memories, beautiful language can serve as a catalyst for change.

Don’t underestimate the power of poetry. Poetry nudges feelings that defy our daily logical language. You don’t leave a poem with a clear idea of what it means. You leave it with an inkling of emotion that plants a spark in you.

Writing will also change the way you think. When we write beautifully, we choose to see and experience the world in the same way.

Write beautiful proses and concise essays. Write both. Don't simply write simply.