The Pros of Simple Prose

Lately, I’ve been working with several authors who’ve come to me after receiving feedback about bad “grammar” in their books or reviews citing difficult, clunky prose. I’ll rant and rave about the public’s misunderstanding of grammar some other time, but here I want to make a case for why you should keep the language (not the themes or plot) in your book simple.

The Importance of Audience

When I took a professional writing certificate after finishing my master’s degree, one thing blew my mind: every writing project must start with a consideration of the audience. The concept of considering your audience seemed so obvious as to sound almost stupid. But how many of us actually do it?

Hardly any.

Who’s going to be reading your book? What will their level of education be? Their gender? Their sociodemographic background? Their age? These are things we usually take for granted when we start writing. We may have an idea of who will read our books, but we don’t give it much consideration beyond that.

Start. Think long and hard about both whom you want to read your book and who will read your book. This difference between want and will is key in publishing, particularly of genre fiction.

You may market your book to, say, women in their early thirties who have university degrees and live in middle-class suburbs. But publishing a book on Amazon doesn’t mean that’s the only segment of society that will read your book.

Cater to Lower Reading Levels

Now, I’m not arguing that you should write a book for everyone. On the contrary, having a specific audience in mind is necessary when determining your themes, topic, story, and so on. When it comes to the actual language in the book (i.e., sentence structure and word choice), it’s wise to consider writing for the lowest common denominator. Here’s why.

Let’s say I’m a university-educated person who buys a book written for a reading level below me. No problem. I’ll breeze through the book and suck in the story. Amazon reviews or reader comments in this scenario usually come out as “quick read” or “easy read.” If the reader liked the story, these remarks are often accompanied by four- and five-star reviews.

Let’s consider the opposite scenario. I have a high-school education and never went to university. I’ve never read academic material or written anything on my own. I love science fiction, though, and can’t get enough of it. Now, if I read a book with a lot of unfamiliar sentence constructions and words I’ve never seen before, I’m going to get annoyed. I may even complain that the book was “awkward” or “difficult.” If it’s too hard for me to read, I won’t be able to absorb the story at all.

And therein lies the difference: people who read below their reading levels will still comprehend and follow your story. People reading above their reading levels won’t, and they’ll feel frustrated and alienated.

My Advice

My dad worked in the newspaper industry for 30 years, and he told me last month that newspaper reporters write for a grade 5 level in terms of word choice and sentence structure. Grade 5!

You might be horrified right now. Don’t worry. I was, too. But then I started thinking about it. Writing to a grade 5 reading level has nothing to do with the meat of my story: the themes, the ideas, the characters, or the plot. It has everything to do with how I communicate that stuff.

So keep your prose simple. Keep sentences short and their structure straightforward. We can talk more about how to do this in interesting ways at a later date, but don’t add several subordinate elements to sentences. Start a new sentence with a new subject and new verb. Keep sentences under 20 words if you can. Use everyday language that most people understand. Use the thesaurus for variety, yes, but don’t pick obscure words that most people will have to look up. As Orwell says, don’t use a long word when a short one will do and never use jargon or complex language if you can think of an everyday equivalent.

You can communicate with your more educated and well-read audience through your themes and message. Reading should be easy. As authors, your job is to communicate the story and make the reading fun. Keeping your prose simple ensures that it is—for everyone who buys your book.