Some of the best advice I ever read about writing came from Seth Godin.
Now, I know Godin’s a pretty divisive figure for some—he’s either beloved as a marketing genius, or he’s derided for speaking almost exclusively in buzzwords and sound effects. But when I was a brand-new writer, there was one thing he wrote on his blog that made writing make sense to me. He wrote,
Most people work hard to find artful ways to say very little. Instead of polishing that turd, why not work harder to think of something remarkable or important to say in the first place?
In the years since reading this, the advice has stuck with me. And the more writing I’m exposed to—whether from paid professionals, authors, bloggers, or folks writing emails in the office—the more I realize just how hard a time we have communicating well.
I’ve read entire books where the author’s said virtually nothing. I’ve read three page letters that could have been a paragraph. (I’ve probably even written a few of them.) We would all do well to remember that brevity is essential to good communication. Although I’m a fan of playful writing and treating writing as art (points I discuss in greater detail in the Write More Better eBook), it’s easy to forget that communicating simply is an art, too.
In their book Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath, put it this way:
Simplicity isn’t about dumbing down, it’s about prioritizing.… What’s the core of your message? Can you communicate it with an analogy or high-concept pitch?
A commitment to simple communication doesn’t reject beautiful writing. It reminds us that our words are servants of the message. And this is where I see much to be encouraged by in the Scriptures.
In the Bible—and especially in the gospel message—there is a marriage of simplicity and beauty in thought and form. The message of the cross is profoundly simple in many ways: the entire gospel message can be summarized as simply as “Jesus died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures… he was buried… he was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). It’s a simple statement, but it’s foolish to treat it as simplistic. It tells us the major beats, yes; but invites us to delve deeper. It hooks us. It makes us want to discover more (or at least it should).
That’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about—that’s what simple and simply good communication does.There are other examples, of course: many of Jesus’ parables, John’s epistles and even much of Paul’s writing can be easily understood, and invite us to plumb their depths. And that’s the point: in the same way the Bible embraces this “profoundly simple yet simply profound” form of communication, so should we as Christians. We need to recognize that the gospel isn’t a complicated message (even if its implications leave our heads spinning). We need to be thankful for that fact. And when we write, we should always make it our aim to let our words serve the message, rather than our message become muddled by our words.
This post is adapted from an article originally posted in June 2010.