In Writing And In Business, “Simple Can Be Harder”

In Writing And In Business, "Simple Can Be Harder"

The legendary Steve Jobs once said, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

When you read a blog, a business letter, an email or a web page, do you wish for more text? Only rarely. Yet we mistakenly think people reading our marketing communications will make time to trudge through our complicated thought process and figure out how it applies to them.

Ever given extra credit in school for writing less than the minimum? School taught us to write in a formal, flabby academic style that makes sense in research journals, but not if you want to make your point quickly, which is crucial in marketing.

Strong writing looks deceptively simple, but takes more time. The philosopher Blaise Pascal excused a long letter by saying he didn’t have time to write a short one. Whether you’re evaluating someone else’s writing or your own, less is more.

Three Writing Secrets To Say More with Less

  1. Rewrite. When you read a story in the New York Times or the New York Post, you’re not seeing a first draft. Journalists rewrite their work and editors revise until it’s lean and muscular. Slash unnecessary words, especially adjectives and adverbs, and find ways to be concise. In his book On Writing, horror maven Stephen King recommends that your second draft be your first draft minus ten percent. Imagine The Stand 10 percent longer. Now that’s scary.
  2. Banish passive voice and use helping verbs rarely.  Passive voice is when the subject of your sentence is at the end, not the beginning. Sentences starting with “There are” and “There is” are prime offenders. And helping verbs such “had” and “was” are not helping your copy. “Savings will be enjoyed with our new product!” You’d never write anything that lame, but note the two helping verbs that make it worse. “Our new product saves you money!” gets it done.
  3. Don’t abuse quotation marks. Your English teacher was right about punctuation. See The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks for some hilarious examples. Unnecessary punctuation distracts and slows down your reader. Legitimate uses for the marks are to set off titles, to indicate irony or sarcasm, to introduce unfamiliar words, or to separate out quoted speech or text from your own work. Not for slang or idiomatic expressions. Not for emphasis. If you fear your reader won’t recognize the expression or if it’s a cliché, quotation marks won’t fix that. The reader will wonder if you’re using someone else’s words or being sarcastic. It weakens your message and throws it into doubt. The solution is to drop the quotes or say what you mean.

If you’re not afraid of simplicity, you might become a marketing genius. Steve Jobs, RIP.

Linda Rastelli

Linda Rastelli

Linda Rastelli is an award-winning journalist, scriptwriter, publicist and co-author of "Marketing: Essential techniques and strategies geared toward results" (John Wiley & Sons, 2007). She enjoys helping businesses sharpen and communicate their marketing messages and the challenge of making complex or technical ideas accessible. Journalism taught her to ask the right questions and to get to the point, scriptwriting taught her to think visually, and writing books taught her patience (but not quickly enough).
Linda Rastelli