Using the KISS Method in Your Writing

I remember 9th grade English. This was the year where my high school began to concentrate on expanding the vocabulary of students. I remember the vocabulary workbooks where we had to focus on the spelling, definitions and usage of words.

We were encouraged to use these newly learned words in our daily conversation and, especially, in our writings.

I learned words like:

Dotard – A person, especially an old person, exhibiting a decline in mental faculties; a weak-minded or foolish old person. (I’m sensitive to this one these days).

Lugubrious – mournful, dismal, or gloomy, especially in an affected, exaggerated, or unrelieved manner.

Prestidigitation – sleight of hand; legerdemain. (Don’t you love it when two other rarely used words are part of the definition of a rarely used word?)

So, why am I going down memory lane to my high school studies? I learned and retained a lot of these words. You would think, as an author, that would be a great asset to my writing.

I would submit to you, this is not true. In fact, I am frustrated by books that cause me to look up the meanings of words or that use pretentious language.

Simplifying the Language in Your Writing

The heading is not meant to encourage you to write in a boring style limited to one syllable words. It’s more of a call to write in a simple, understandable language. This is especially true in dialog, but applies to all of your fiction writing and most non-fiction as well.

What I am encouraging is writing in plain, understandable language. This allows your reader to enjoy your story without having to struggle to understand word meanings and context.

I’m an IT guy in my day job. Many of the examples of confusing language that I’ve seen with unnecessarily confusing language appears in the manuals and help text written for technology. The main reason for this is that, traditionally, these documents were written by other technology people that were familiar with the technical jargon.

My writing delves into technology sometimes and my characters may be technical propeller-heads. I often use this as a source of humor and use that humor to explain to the reader what is being said. Here is a typical example:

Jonesy turned to Frank to tell him what he found as he hacked into the mob’s bank accounts.

“I was able to spoof the IP address and log in with a pseudo script using proxy credentials to gain access to the administrator rights,” Jonesy said as he clicked the keyboard frantically.

“That sounds great, I think,” Frank said. “How about giving that to me again in English.”

Jonesy looked up with a mixture of amusement and frustration at his partner’s lack of literacy in technology.

“I found the bad guy’s money and I now have access to it. Should we make it go bye, bye?”

“That’s better. Yes. Let’s make it go bye, bye,” Frank answered.

Sometimes you have to use jargon or terminology to give characters (and the author) credibility in what they’re writing. The example above is a simple way to explain it to your readers that may not have the same expertise.

Word Choice

This is an area where I struggle at times. I’ve spent much of my career writing business documents where formalized language is the norm. When I write fiction, I’ve found that I sometimes fall into that business vocabulary without realizing it. Here are some typical words that I’ve had to force myself to substitute.

Utilize – change to use.

Execute – change to perform or, even better, do.

Attempt – change to try.

You get the idea. These formalized words can be off-putting to readers.

Extra Words

This is something that Microsoft Word has helped me correct. It’s related to crutch words, but deals more with phrases or terms that we use that can be greatly simplified. Here are some examples:

All of a sudden – substitute suddenly.

Have to/Need to – substitute must.

At this point in time/At the present time – substitute now.

These are just some examples of the simplification that I have tried to bring to my writing. It’s a constant struggle as old writing habits are hard to overcome.

What about you? Do you have any examples of simplification that work for you?

38 thoughts on “Using the KISS Method in Your Writing

  1. In fact, when I lived in the US several times I had “linguistic” problems.
    Being of Italian/French mother tongue, many words that come from a Latin root, can easily be translated into English. So far, so good. The problem is that (I speak of 40 years ago), not all Americans had a large vocabular….
    More than once, although the verb or noun used was correct, my interlocutor did not understand it. From that moment I realized that even in the language used to express oneself, you have to be able to change the content and adapt it to the other person.
    As for creative writing, well, I admit it’s harder.
    I prefer to keep the level that I consider appropriate, after all, if a few words are not known, it may be interesting for the reader to expand the spectrum of knowledge… can’t you find it nice? Hugs :-)claudine

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    • I think the American vocabulary has dwindled over time. I remember a study on presidential speeches and how the school grade level of the vocabulary has gone from a high school level back in the time of Eisenhower and Kennedy to an elementary school level with our most recent (especially the present) leaders. It’s kind of sad and may be a symptom of people reading less and being online with texting language more.

      Liked by 3 people

      • 😉 I surely got the message, dear Don. You’re fully right… Thank you for the explanation: I was in a College in early ’80 and after that, back in the 1984-85. Long story, quite few good memories… Hugs and enjoy the day :-)c


  2. In 9th Grade where I went to school for a couple years, we had a book for larger vocabulary also. When I changed back to a rural school near where we lived, a neighbor in my grade made fun of my vocabulary. She thought my new way of speaking was hilarious. I’d formed a habit I had to unlearn. As a teen, I wanted to fit in. I remember one of the words we learned was “cudgel”. For some reason, that word stuck with me even though I haven’t used it for years. No one uses it. 🙂 — Suzanne

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    • This reminds me of when I switched from Catholic to public school. When I raised my hand, I would stand to answer questions when i was called on and was made fun of by my classmates until I stopped this behavior.

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      • My one uncle said his son had the same problem when he finished the 8th Grade in Catholic school and started public high school. My dad’s brother was so upset when he started public school after his parents moved, my grandmother had to find a Catholic high school where she could send him. He said the kids didn’t know how to behave properly in the public school. My dad was five years older and had graduated from a Catholic high school before they moved. 🙂 — Suzanne

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  3. I couldn’t agree with you more, Don. Simple (but not insultingly simple), straightforward language is the most effective way to tell a story. Like you, I don’t like using pretentious-sounding language if there isn’t a very good reason to use it. It doesn’t draw the reader in.

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  4. ‘At this moment in time’ is one related ‘At the present time’, but it annoys me intensely. I want to shout ‘What’s wrong with ‘NOW’. Anyway, is it opposed to a moment out of time? And what is a moment out of time? Time is composed of moments, so by definition, it’s impossible to have one out of time.
    I, too, remember learning words–spelling and meanings. I have no objection to that. It’s great to increase our vocabulary. But should we deliberately use simpler words, even for fairly common ones? You cite Utilize and Attempt as 2 words to substitute. I think the majority of people would understand these words. OK, perhaps Utilize might sound a bit pretentious, but Attempt?
    I agree with you, up to a point, Don, but not to the point where we are only using the simplest English in our writing. I think that is an insult to the reader. (Jargon is a different matter altogether.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you on attempt. Most would understand that. Utilize sounds procedural or technical in nature to me. As someone that often writes dialog for law enforcement or military characters, words like utilize, execute and others creep into the dialog, but I believe they are valid in those contexts. Thanks so much for weighing in.


  5. I hate ‘writing down’ to people. In fact, even with my youngest children’s books, I insert some language that is above the age group. I try to do so, though, in a way that makes the context explain the meaning. Books like that did wonders for my own vocabulary. As for adults, if they don’t understand my language they should be reading something simpler. The words are chosen, wherever possible, for exact nuances of meaning.

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    • I think it depends on the genre and the audience. I tend to use language the way people in my characters’ socio-economic group would speak. I try to be appropriate with the level of dialog and make the descriptive narrative compelling but not to the point where the average reader needs a dictionary to follow the story.

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  6. Pingback: Using the KISS Method in Your Writing – Written By Don Massenzio – Writer's Treasure Chest

  7. Thanks for this, Don. Being an ancient writer, I’ve experienced many of the pitfalls of early mistakes and ‘over-writing.’ Being an enthusiastic person by nature, can – initially – be your undoing. I used to write reams before I realised I could say more and much more meaningfully, by writing less…So, usually, ‘less is more’ is my motto. I still love learning the meaning of old words and the odd, interesting one, doesn’t come amiss, but ‘rationing’ them makes sense. Best wishes with your books. x

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  8. I’m far too dyed in the wool to write simply. The habit of writing to the best of your ability is far too ingrained in me from both my parents and from all of my schooling. It’s where being autistic comes in handy.

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  9. Pingback: Using the KISS Method in Your Writing | Ann Writes Inspiration

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