Communicate

How Keeping It Simple Can Make Writing Better

I am writing this post with an odd constraint attached. No word is allowed to have more than two sound units. I borrowed the idea from writer Ruth Rendell, who is using it for a novel aimed at adults who have just learned to read. But it is also a solid tactic for making sure any kind of writing you perform conveys the meaning you intend.

Picture: Oli Scarff/Getty

I am not saying that all writing should only use short words. After all, the name of this site would be banned under that approach, and science would be in big trouble. Your own surname could prove to be a problem. And there will be times when a longer word conveys your thoughts in a simpler fashion.

What renders this kind of ‘two beat’ rule useful sometimes is that it forces you to think about every single word you write down. You will need to be concise. You will need to think about other words that can convey the same meaning. All of those steps make for clearer writing.

When I edit the work of other authors, one of my most common fixes is to shorten each sentence. ‘One idea per sentence’ is a good rule, and can help you avoid mistakes in your grammar. The ‘two beats’ dictum helps with this too.

Does this mean your writing will become basic and childish? I don’t think so. Take Hamlet’s most famous speech, which begins ‘To be or not to be’. It has just sixteen words with more than two beats. Complex ideas can be explained with basic prose.

The Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice to improve your writing.


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