Simple vs. Clear

February 26, 2013 •

What is the difference between something being clear, and something being simple? In writing, people might say they strive for simplicity, but perhaps clarity is more important. It certainly sounds better. It’s all too easy to get lost in a sea of long words and complex sentences. Why do people strive for simplicity yet end up in the weeds?

This is incredibly common in academic writing, where it’s believe it’s driven by fear. “Impostor syndrome” is often mentioned in relation to grad students and academics; using the most complex language you can muster is just one more way to prove that you belong.

How can you decide whether your writing is clear or whether it is simple? I should probably just distinguish exactly what I mean here. Clear writing is writing that is easy to understand. Not childish, and not over complicated. It is appropriate for the context, content, and audience. Simple writing is too simple. That sounds reductive, but what I mean is that it has none of the situational awareness of clear writing, the very property that makes clear writing so good, and so difficult to produce.

The problem with the lack of clarity in writing lies in people worrying that someone will mistake their clear writing for simple writing. Or maybe even think that they are simple. The only way to avoid this is to forge ahead. Write clearly, don’t overcomplicate things, and ignore anyone who tries to criticise the direct nature of your words.