Clutter-free Writing

David R. Williams advocates applying the K.I.S.S. principle (“Keep it simple, Stupid.”) to writing. In his book Sin Boldly! Dr. Dave’s Guide to Writing the College Paper (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2000), 9, he explains, ” ‘Simple’ does not have to mean simpleminded. Keeping it simple means avoiding the complexity of too many competing, confusing factors. This applies to choosing a paper topic as well as writing a sentence or running a business.”

Here are Dr. Dave’s recommendations for keeping your writing simple:

Pick one topic, one argument, that is finite, limited, and can be defined. Do not try to explain everything; it can’t be done. Even if you think you know everything, avoid the temptation to put it all in every paper. We college professors do not simply skim the page searching for the magic words that get awarded “points,” which we then add up to determine the grade. We actually want a coherent essay, not a bushel of babble. Narrow in on a specific question or problem or character. Pick a word, a phrase, an image, or an event. Ask a specific question: “Why does the author use this particular word or image in this paragraph?” Why did the Americans in Texas declare their independence in 1836 instead of 1835?” “Why does Jesse Jackson prefer the term ‘African American’ to ‘Afro-American’ or ‘black’?”

Your analysis of that specific question can then widen to include the larger problems of the text, or of life. Begin with your specific fact or quote or problem and then expand to the larger contexts, first of the work under consideration, then of the author and his or her world, and then, if you are feeling ambitious, of the cosmic whole. But do not leave us floating in outer space. Keep the original rock from which you started in sight and be sure to return to it at the end.

When you do not have to answer the question of what the entire text is all about, the problem of choosing a topic is considerably simplified. You do not have to “understand Faulkner” or “the causes of the Great Depression” or “the meaning of existence” in order to write a sophomore paper. Begin with whatever interests you, even if it is only a single person or phrase or event.

Dr. Dave provides additional insights on this topic in the chapter “Choosing a Topic and Telling Your Story.

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