I recently showed my friend hemingwayapp.com. It’s a tool that helps you detect the readability of the text. For example, it identifies sentences that are long and hard to read, find unnecessary words. I exclaimed that it is a nice tool that I wish to use more for my future writings. But my friend revolted telling “I think one should write in whatever way they want to without fretting too much over readability and shit. That just ruins the expression. If one expresses better using complex sentences then what’s the matter? Simplifying it would take away half the beauty of it”
Even I had the same views previously as my friend. But after having come across some amazing writers and their works, I changed my views about writing. I started looking out ways to express myself better via writing. Here is a polished version of my reply.
Convey the meaning
Writing is not just putting your thoughts on paper. It is a way of expressing your thoughts to the world. A good written piece has to convey the ideas of the writer to a reader fully. Writing that doesn’t do that is equivalent of expressing love to your lover in a language she/he doesn’t understand. For a reader to absorb what you have written, the content needs to be organised. Thinking is a fast process. You can get a complex idea within fraction of a second. But if you hasten to put the thoughts onto a paper immediately, it will be disorganised. A reader will not be able to understand your thoughts.
In the book Godel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter discusses a thought experiment. Suppose a LP record of Bach’s Sonata in F minor is sent to outer space on a rocket. Suppose an alien civilisation happens to find that record. What would be the true deciphering of the record? The grooves on the disk may intrigue the aliens and let us say the are intelligent enough to figure out how to produce sounds from the disk. But mere production of sounds is not worthwhile. As Hofstadter puts it, true deciphering of the record is said to be done when their brain structures create emotional effects in them analogous to the emotional effects we experience in hearing the music. I like to think of writing as the same way. When people feel a emotion strongly, they want to share it. A writer is no exception, she chooses to share her emotion via her writing. The function of a good written piece is to create the same emotion in reader, which writer has felt.
Writing is Bidirectional
Also, many consider writing to be a unidirectional process - ideas are transferred from one’s mind onto a paper. But its bidirectional. Writing also gives a feedback on your thinking. As you write, the words begin to modify your thoughts. Your thoughts in turn modify your words. It’s a loop. I have personally felt that when I write, I start realising about few things that I haven’t figured out. It forces me to think about a particular idea in a particular direction. It’s a valuable feedback!
This is reminiscent of Feynman technique. To test whether you have understood something, you try explaining it on a paper as if you were explaining it to a kid. In this process, if you find yourself using jargon words to explain any concept then it is a sign that your understanding of that concept is hollow. Go back and revise the concept, and try again till you have eliminated jargon from your explanation. The same is the case with writing!
One of my favourite quotes - A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. I used to have a misconception that writers have this amazing gift to express themselves flawlessly. But on digging deep, I realised how much effort goes into writing about something clearly. After learning these facts, I have started to appreciate and analyse my favourite works more.
I have compiled a list of useful resources on good writing here in my evernote - Improve Writing
The Hofstadter’s thought experiment is taken from Chapter VI - The Location of Meaning of Godel, Escher, Bach. An interesting talk that might inspire you to read the book.
In Escher’s Drawing Hands, the left hand draws the right hand and right hand in turn draws the left hand. This is a Strange Loop! My views on writing are similar - While writing, words modifies your thoughts and your thoughts in turn modify your writing.
Image source of Escher’s Drawing Hands - https://en.opisanie-kartin.com/images/2/image2261.jpg