Principles of Writing

A thoughtful Korean student who frequently reads my writing, and to whom I recently mentioned my essay about the disappearing craft of handwriting, “Are We Solving the Mystery of Atlantis?” sends me the following thought: “I want to understand the writing on your website. It’s not easy, but I like that it’s not what everyone can get easily.”

To which I reply as follows:

That’s a good idea. Of course, serious writing should not be unnecessarily complicated, but neither should it be designed to be easily understood. The vocabulary, the sentence structure, the images, and of course the ideas themselves will often be difficult, even for native language readers. Especially these days, when education and literacy (in every society) are at such a low level compared to the past, most public writing is written at a low level of skill and complexity, because (a) the writers are worried about being ignored by people with superficial language skills, and (b) the writers themselves usually have extremely low writing skills, at least in the case of English writing. (Journalistic writing today, especially, is at an unbelievably low level. When I read online news articles and “opinion essays,” including in big newspapers like The New York Times, I often wonder if the writer even graduated from an English elementary school. I’m not exaggerating.)

As for me, even when I wrote for a large audience in the past, I always tried to write in my way, without compromises for our uneducated era. Some readers appreciated the fact that I wrote without compromise, and some readers hated the fact that my writing was “too complicated,” because they were used to simplified, basic writing, and simplified, basic thoughts.

Now, since I write on my own website and don’t have to worry anymore about editors saying, “Most of our readers are not smart enough to read this kind of writing,” I never even think about those things. I don’t try to make my writing difficult or complex. Never. But I also don’t try to make my ideas simple or basic, and complicated ideas cannot always be explained in simple words.

As a reader, I most enjoy reading things that feel strange or complicated, so that I have to focus hard and re-read them a few times (or many times) to fully understand. If a writer only uses simple sentences and basic vocabulary, so that I understand perfectly the first time I run through it, then I know his thinking cannot be very serious or profound. I enjoy getting immersed in the writing, like diving into deep water, so that I can spend some time alone with it, wandering around in a silent, mysterious place trying to figure things out. Simple writing is like a puddle, and dries up quickly. The best writing is like an ocean, which lasts for billions of years. In between, there are lakes and rivers and ponds and streams — all of those can be good for searching and thinking, in different ways. But puddles give no benefit at all; they only annoy me by getting my shoes wet for no good reason.

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