Recently, in an article called “11 Smart Tips for Brilliant Writing” I read:
“Do you sound smarter when you use big words?”
“According to a study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, the answer is no. In fact, complex writing makes you sound small-minded. "
“ ...To sound smart, you must stop trying to sound smart. Brilliant writing is simple writing, a relevant idea delivered clearly and directly.”
This made me think of several things I collected here. They are only my personal reflections in an effort to find my own pathway, methods, and paradigms. They are not intended to show people the correct way to write.
It was clear to me that I had to analyze simple sentence writing from at least two points of view: dialogues and general narrative. The guidelines for my reflections were: Do we all express ourselves with simple sentences only? Do great authors use simple sentences as a general method? How realistic is this? I began with the way we talk and consequently how real dialogues occur.
We all speak differently from each other under normal circumstances. Under stress, fear or pain, we all exhibit variations of our normal speaking style. We all know how different we sound when we are romancing someone: we chose verbs and adjectives that we would avoid as talking to the postman. We use different phrase constructions to be persuasive and get what we want. We do not analyze the words as we speak in order to be manipulative, we do it automatically at a subconscious level. People act differently on each occasion and the difference is reflected somehow in our speech. If we add family customs, cultural traditions, ethnic idiosyncrasy and personal education and experiences, the possible variations multiply from person to person. It is relatively easy for us to guess where a speaker comes from. With some experience, we are able to notice some subtle differences like the vocabulary used by a person and subsequently have an idea about her/his level of education.
The way I just phrased the last sentence is intrinsically associated with my personality and probably, with the way my brain processes information. When I was young, I had a job that involved meeting with school administrators. One day, I had to repeat three times a question and still, I could not get any response from a school director. He simply could not understand me. After the third question my boss, who was present in the scene, exploded in defense of the director: “You have to forgive Mr. Castelo; he speaks in the same way he writes!” Then she formulated the same question in a very simple way. Of course, the question was perfect and said the same I wanted to communicate. I was astonished and still, I am every time I remember the episode. The most interesting thing about it is that I know I would have never been able to come out with such a simple question: it is just not in my nature. Our inner nature and the syntax we use seem to be closely intertwined.
Very recently, one beta-reader of the English version of my fantasy novel questioned one of my sentences: “It's way too complicated” -he said. I read it again and again and I could not see the complication. “Of course, I am from South America. We value intricate syntax and reject simple sentences when they do not part of an action scene.” -I thought- “It's a cultural thing or a personal condition but it's certainly a difference between him and me.” I have heard “Write with simple sentences” only in the US. In South America, this would raise a unanimous “What?.”
If I question the complexity of the sentences written by Borges (South American), there is no more Borges. With a European author happens the same. If I ask Ortega y Gasset (Spaniard) to eliminate complexity in his bucolic analogies, I will be destroying his poetic prose. Marcel Schwob (French-Jewish) in the chapter dedicated to Petronius, part of his “Imaginary Lives”, opens his writing with a seven lines sentence. Obviously, he did not get the “Write with simple sentences” call. A correction under such premise will cause a syntax butchery over Schwob's opening and its seductive magic will be killed. Non-simple sentences allow me to perform several tricks about which I will write on another occasion. One of the tricks is the use of related words what belong to another realm like butchery and kill. If they are used to making an analogy while expressing an idea, I will be creating an image of a bloody destruction in the reader´s mind at a subconscious level. I would not be able to do this by using simple sentences. Mary Renault would have faced a similar problem with simple sentences writing. Borges had his own tricks. Both Renault and Borges tricks need non-simple sentences. I will address this topic in a future blog's article.
Unfortunately for a writer, peculiarities in people's speech are not only effects of the causes noted above like cultural or educational differences. If we add the psychological condition of the speaker, then we are just opening the Pandora box. There are simple ways of interaction between our psychology and speech, like those noticed by the so called Transactional Analysis. According to this theory, one's speech reflects an interchange between parental, adult and childlike aspects of our personality established in the first stages of our life. This means that there could be more variations in the speech of the same person depending on what situation is been addressed. This implicates language syntax and even the tone used with the sentences.
There are more crucial interactions between psychology and speech which involve more profound aspects of our personalities including pathologies. NLP has a chapter, so to speak, that deals more with the linguistics part of it than with the nonverbal language theory which is so popular among writers, sellers, and Police experts. NLP has shown that people in therapy, depending on their pathology, use unfinished sentences which hide important information containing the origin of their problem. With this, the spectrum of possible differences in human speech gets, even more, wider, making it more complicated for the writer to create a specific, coherent and realistic speech for a character whether he is normal or suffers a pathology.
We can even go deeper. I just ordered a new book I need to read as part of the investigation for my next novel. It is about language patterns that reveal personality problems. It claims that the way words are put together carries information beyond the content of what we say. The book is based on studies of psychiatric patients classified as impulsives, delusionals, depressives, compulsives and alcoholics. It analyzes several elements of language from the expressions of feelings up to the use of pronouns such as “I” and how these elements can characterize the syntax of the patient. I have already read a study of lexical and syntactic changes in the language of some authors during their lifetime, in an effort for discovering early manifestations of dementia. The study focuses on some lexical and syntactic elements: vocabulary size, repetition, word specificity, word-class deficit, fillers, grammatical complexity, and the use of passive. This information is important for me because I suspect that my “historical” character suffered from bipolar depression. This article led me to some others, like a classification of suicidal and non-suicidal lyricists based on their work. In these studies, passive constructions are analyzed among other aspects. They conclude, for example, that passive constructions are less used by people with depression. Another way to read the latter is that normal people usilize simple sentences less frequently than those with this pathology or with dementia.
So, if I am going to include an extensive dialogue between a non-depressed person and my depressed character, I need to handle the difference between each one's syntax very well. Passive construction should be just one of the things that have to be controlled in order to identify the personalities of these two speakers and their different psychology. The structure of their sentences, the use of pronouns, the chosen verbs and the way they are used (noun-to-verb ratio), etc have to be handled wisely. The dialogue must be made up of simple and complex sentences depending not only upon the character but also the feelings involved or the nature of a question and its implications. Dostoevsky did it naturally and before the existence of all these studies and theories because he was a genius; I have to cheat.
So... do I think Dostoevsky was trying hard to sound smart? I don't think so! I think he just wanted to be a good writer. As I can see, nobody uses simple sentences only. We all use them occasionally. If we all speak in simple sentences, there would not be differences in our personalities and no detectable pathologies. We all would respond to the same psychology. We all would be the same: an indistinguishable self, part of a collective consciousness. That is not real. “Write with simple sentences” is not realistic and a guillotine for creative and innovative writing. As for me, no thank you, I am not going to take the advice.
So, why this advice is so ubiquitous? Why is there a consensual and repellent reaction against complexity? Why was such a non-brilliant writer like Borges (he did not write with simple sentences) a perpetual Nobel Prize candidate? I will continue in the next blog's article.