I’ve been shaken to my core this afternoon. It began with my reading an article by a journalist named Shane Snow about how the best writing is as simple as possible without oversimplifying. Then I made the mistake of using an online utility to analyze a piece I was hoping to get published in a major newspaper. I thought I’d managed to craft a pretty good Op Ed article that had a decent chance of making the grade.
Yet, the resulting analysis all but destroyed that hope. By every widely accepted measure of the complexity of a document’s language, my document scored outrageously far above the parameters that Snow recommends in his article. I reeled in despair.
But I didn’t stop there. I took several posts from this blog that I thought featured some of my simplest, clearest, and best writing and subjected it to the same analysis. And the complexity scores weren’t much lower than they were for the newspaper piece I’ve been working on.
I’ve prided myself on my writing ever since I was a kid. In fact, writing is about the only thing I’ve thought I do reasonably well. Almost everything else has been an uncommon struggle for me. But at least I believed I could write better than most people. Maybe even well enough to earn some money from it. But if Snow’s article is correct, I can hardly expect to earn a living writing any more than I could from repairing cars.
Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. There’s no way my NLD could allow me to be an auto mechanic. But perhaps I’m fluent enough in English that I could learn to write more simply and clearly than I do now. Maybe then people would want to read what I write and even pay for the privilege. Yet, it looks like I’ll need to radically overhaul my writing style to have any chance of that, and I don’t know if I’m up to it.
There is an old story about Sonny Rollins that gives me some hope. Sonny Rollins recorded some of the most celebrated saxophone music ever in the 1950’s, but he was unhappy with his own playing. And so he stopped recording and performing in public and retreated to a bridge where he played only to himself for a couple of years until he had reinvented his approach. Only then did he reappear in the music world and go on to continue building his legacy as a “saxophone colossus.”
Of course, Sonny Rollins was tremendously successful before he did that, whereas I’m a nobody in the writing world. And Rollins had immense musical talent with which to effect his transformation while my writing talent is a giant question mark.
I think or thought I write well, and others have told me I do. But some have also told me I should write more simply and clearly so I’m easier to understand. And now I have an objective analysis that backs them up. Moreover, even if I can make my style more readable and appealing, do I have anything to say that people want to read about?
I worry that if I change my writing as much as it looks like I need to, I’ll lose my unique voice and any appeal I might have as an author worth reading about anything. And I don’t know what to do about this. I grant that if I’m too wordy and “sophisticated” now, few people will want to read me and that nobody will probably pay to do it. But if I don’t stand out in a good way, how will I attract any more readers than I do now? And how can I stand out if I stop writing in a way that comes as naturally as my previous writing has? I haven’t a clue. I feel hopeless except for the hope that “this too shall pass.” And in the meantime, I’m going to keep refining and eventually submit that article I’ve been working on and see what happens. What's more, I’m publishing this blogpost which I’ve tried to make as simple and clear as I can without overdoing it. What do you think of it?