Passage of the Week

EllenTebbits

One of my favorite things about reading children’s literature is finding passages in which ambitious, talented authors cleanly and clearly express the most complicated and/or abstract situations, relationships, or ideas. These authors know that young people are often more than capable of grasping such things. They understand that the difficulty lies in the language – that they, as authors, just need to search (and then sometimes search and search and search some more) and find the way to say it right.

I’ve written here before about how two of my favorite authors – Michael Ende and Roald Dahl – frequently tackle the thorniest of issues and grandest of questions in their books, and how they invariably do so with plain, simple, straightforward language. These words are often seen as negative things, as being synonymous with “lazy.” But good simple writing takes work. Distilling the complicated, finding a direct route through a knotted-up mess – it takes hard work. And whether you’re four or forty-four years old, this sort of “simple” writing makes for better reading.

George Orwell had five rules for writing, and three of them – three – had to do with keeping your writing plain, straightforward, and simple.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Countless other writers (and artists in general) have spoken out for simplicity. George Eliot said that:

The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words.

Here’s Charles Mingus:

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.

Here’s Mark Twain in a letter to a fellow writer:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English―it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them―then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

And even if you dislike Mingus, Orwell, Eliot, and Twain, here’s a quote from Albert Einstein, a guy it’s kind of hard to hate:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

And finally, a writer whose name I’m sure you’d never expect to see among such distinguished company: Beverly Cleary. I recently got my hands on a dozen or so of Cleary’s novels, mostly ones from the first half of her career. And though I don’t have a Cleary quote about the power of plain, simple language, I can assure you that she believed in it. And just like Ende and Dahl (or Eliot and Twain), Cleary often uses her simple language to take on big, messy subjects.

In the passage below, we find Cleary mixing a little moral fogginess into what has so far been a pleasant, relatively untroubled narrative. Things only get foggier over the course of the rest of the novel, but Cleary never once abandons her plain, simple style. There are plenty of places where it would’ve been easier for her to resort to a string of big words or a clichéd metaphor. However, Cleary is ever respectful of her reader, young or old or in between. Call her writing “plain,” “simple,” and “straightforward” all you want – but you can’t ever call it “lazy.”

Enjoy.

. . .

From “Ellen Tebbits,” by Beverly Cleary (pp. 120-121)

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What bothered her most was the question of who should apologize first. Should she tell Austine she was sorry or should Austine tell her she was sorry? Of course, slapping someone was worse than untying a sash, but just the same, if Austine had left Ellen’s sash alone, she would not have had her face slapped. Yes, it was Austine who really started it. Ellen decided Austine should apologize first. Ellen would smile encouragingly at her and give her every chance to say she was sorry. Then Ellen would say she had not really meant to slap her at all, and they would be best friends again.

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