Don’t Write Simply. Write Honestly Instead.

Is there a more common piece of writing advice on the internet than “keep it simple”? Reigning in your tendency to show off your vast vocabulary and poetic flair is supposed to widen your reach, make your writing more persuasive, and make you more approachable.

I agree in spirit. Keeping it simple is better than keeping it complex, everything else being equal.

The trouble is, in the real world, everything else is never equal.

You’re not Ernest

It takes a Hemingway to write in short, snappy sentences, and still touch the very core of the subjects he explores. When a writer not of his caliber (which, let’s not kid ourselves, means all of us) attempts the same, the result is superficial and mundane.

Brevity is the soul of wit, wrote Shakespeare. He was correct, of course. Some seem to forget, however, that wit isn’t the singular goal of writing. Writing should simultaneously do justice to the topic and to the author’s character. To write in Hemingway’s style you need Hemingway’s soul.

I’m not advocating for blog posts to become train-of-thought rambles. Lack of brevity needn’t mean lack of clarity. It’s evident that writing clearly becomes more difficult as complexity increases. We, as writers, should relish this challenge.

Instead, we are told to escape into simplicity.

Give your readers some credit

A common argument for simpler writing goes something like this: if your writing requires effort, your readers will tune out and you will never reach a wider audience.

Against this argument, I say two things.

First, it is my job as a writer to make the reader invested enough in the topic that they want to give it their undivided attention. If I fail to make this connection with the reader because my writing isn’t precise or descriptive enough, I will improve next time. And the time after that, and so on. Each successive failure will make me a better writer.

Second, good readers appreciate writers that make the reader work for their prize — assuming the prize is worth the effort. If your readers fail to follow quality writing, you’ve got the wrong readers (perhaps because you were keeping it simple to begin with). In other words, if I fail because the reader refuses to put in a modicum of effort, that means they aren’t interested enough in the subject matter and I don’t need them in my audience. I am not desperate for more readers.

Desperation makes a poor foundation for a career.

Give your topics some respect

Some topics can’t be served properly while maintaining the simplicity of language. This is especially true of cutting-edge developments, inventions, and world events. Linguistics lag behind history.

Remarkably, writers tend to dumb down such topics the most. It makes sense. Every writer wants to be the first to translate new developments into a format everyone can understand. It’s one of the tried-and-true recipes for online virality. Readers love it because it makes them feel ahead of the curve and they just can’t wait to spread their new knowledge further.

The trouble is, this leads to an oversimplified version of events becoming common knowledge and it makes it impossible for the far more nuanced truth to be widely adopted.

Oversimplification thus becomes dogma.

Don’t dumb yourself down

Here’s a syllogism for you (dear simplicity fanatics, my apologies for using the word syllogism).

  1. Most people have short attention spans these days.
  2. You want to reach the widest audience possible.

Therefore, you should write for short attention spans.

The first premise is, sadly, true. The second doesn’t need to be. When you imagine your audience, do you picture them scrolling mindlessly? Skimming your writing instead of reading it? Reading just the title and the final paragraph in a vain attempt to increase their consumption efficiency?

I hope not. If you respect yourself as a writer, you shouldn’t settle for a readership below your standards. Picture your perfect readers and write for them.


The phrase “keep it simple” is, in itself, an oversimplification. Here’s a more accurate version that I can get behind:

Never complicate your writing needlessly for any reason, be it to stroke your ego, to impress arrogant readers, or to reach a word count target; on the other hand, never simplify it if that means misleading the audience, appeasing lazy readers at the expense of better ones, or suppressing what makes you unique as a writer.

Honesty is truly the best policy, although rarely the easiest one.

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