How Keeping It Simple Can Make Writing Better

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.


  • The quest for clarity (should that be ‘clearer writing’?) is too concerned with the building blocks of language and not enough with the rhythm and flow of writing.

    I have lost count of the number of ‘helpful’ posts telling me to use small words, short sentences, fractured paragraphs, &c. Few posts encourage me to seek the beauty and elegance of eloquence and flow. Few posts inspire me to feel the majesty and art of crafting ideas.

    Must we really be this dowdy and grey with language? Must function beat form into submission while we pander to the morons and imbeciles who use language only to convey which bogan was most recently voted off the island? Bugger those chumps and their need for pre-digested ideas to be regurgitated into their cheeping beaks. Screw this anti-elitism which says cathedrals of words should be torn down in favour of flat-pack bungalows of utterances. It’s time to become reenchanted with the demon-haunted veldt of discourse.

    • I’m all for rhythm and flow and elegance. But you can’t achieve those if you don’t know the basics, and the fact is most people don’t.

      • In my experience the really good writers achieve rhythm and flow naturally. In fact I don’t think that you can achieve this unless you are exceptional in the first place.

    • You need not give up form to simplify your writing, but rather, use words and language that convey images quickly. This, coupled with short concise sentences will draw you deep into the writing.

      Show me, don’t tell me.

  • Great post! You remind me of advice I’ve heard from writers alike; “[Whoever writes in English] is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective.”
    – George Orwell

    In the case of writing, less is more.

  • By “two beats”, or “two sound units”, do you actually mean syllables?

    I realise the word “syllable” has three…uhh…syllables, and so wouldn’t have fit into this experiment of a post, but that is a perfect example of how this approach fails. It’s the whole “And there will be times when a longer word conveys your thoughts in a simpler fashion” point you made.

    I needed to clarify what you meant by “two beats” or “two sound units”, whereas if you simply said “two syllables”, there would be no room for mis-interpretation.

    It’s an interesting concept, but not altogether practical. I’m all for keeping things simple and concise, but you need to keep practicality in mind too.

  • When you say “sound units”, do you mean… phones/phonemes? You’ll find that pretty difficult.

    Of course, keeping things simple is quite an admirable aim when writing, however, what you’ll find is that this can lead to being unnecessarily verbose.

    I also think that people need to be exposed to unfamiliar words, in unfamiliar contexts, since otherwise it would be impossible to learn and form the semantic clouds of meaning that we use to interpret language.

    • I assume he meant syllables, but the word ‘syllables’ is too long so he phrased it in a less precise way.

      I’m a big fan of short and powerful messages, but it can make it hard to deliver information.

      • Agreed – and I suppose that’s why “longer word” linked to syllable. Sound units mean different things to different people, though, and I can’t help but read it in a phonetic context.

        • That is exactly why syllable was linked, and why the point about it not being an absolute rule was made. Agree ‘sound units’ isn’t ideal.

  • If you insist on using simple words – throw away “beautiful, marvellous, amazing, exotic, panoramic, paradise, bewitching, beguiling, curvaceous, voluptuous, glamorous, inocent…” etc.

    Instead you can use: Good, Plus Good, and Double Plus Good.
    – George Orwell strikes again

  • I would have wrote a post with three sound words but my head hurt too much. My blog posts have gone to two times ten times ten words and that makes me glad. I want to make them much more long. If I used two sound words then my posts might drop by half at least. It’s not what I want but I do see what you mean with the need to think what word you use to stay as a one sound or two sound word.

    Does your head hurt now. Good, mine did too when I read your post. He he he.

    Love the posts where you gripe on bad words Ang… Hang on that has two sounds. I am screwed.

    • I gave this a try this morning on my own blog and was rather surprised that it did seem to work. I prefer the word Phonemes to “Sound Units” though Angus.

      I will be putting it to use today in my work emails along with the other close by hint to put the “guts” at the start of the email. It will be a fun trial to make me think more.

      Thumbs up mate.

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