Tuesday December 7th 2010

Writing Simply But Effectively: how to write clear and clutter-free fiction for kids – by Helen Brain

Pruning your writing of unnecessary clutter is a great way to energize your prose. Here are tips on cutting back on verbiage.


Choosing a complicated word when a simpler one will do can dull your writing. Cluttering your sentences with unnecessary words will do the same thing. For sharp, engaging writing, try these pruning tips.

Keep it Simple

A pedantic teacher might tell his class, ‘Kindly ensure that the required apparel, as specified on the information sheet, has been purchased.’ He would get his message across more easily if he simply says, ‘Please make sure you have bought everything on the list.’

Some people write like this teacher speaks, particularly new writers trying to impress their readers. It’s also common in adolescents’ writing, as they try out words they don’t use in everyday speech.

Unnecessarily Complicated Language Makes Your Prose Turgid

Choosing a longer more complicated word when a simpler one will do always has a thick, turgid effect on your prose. It draws attention to the words, instead of letting the reader focus on the plot, characters or the mood you are trying to create.

Choose the Anglo-Saxon Word instead of the Latin

The simplest form of a word is nearly always a better choice than the more complicated form. This often means using the Anglo Saxon word instead of the Latin. It’s better to say ‘walk’ than ‘perambulate’, ‘leave’ is usually better than ‘depart’, and ‘hug’ instead of ‘embrace.’

Use the Complicated Word to Build Character

The exception would be if you were trying to build up a character. If you want to show someone who is didactic and verbose, and probably a little insecure, you could make him or her talk like the teacher above.

Use Active Verbs Rather than Passive

One of the reasons why the teacher’s instruction sounds so ungainly is that it is given in the passive tense. This is almost always weaker than using the active tense.

Compare these examples:

“Ben was grabbed and wrestled to the ground by Bruiser Kerr,” and

“Bruiser Kerr grabbed Ben and wrestled him to the ground.”

“Margie was hit by the teacher,” and

“The teacher hit Margie.”

Leave Out Unnecessary Words

“The cat lay lazily in the autumn sunshine, relaxing every fibre of its being, soaking up the warm rays like an orange Brillo pad.”

This sentence is over-long, badly shaped and cumbersome. It needs radical pruning. The rule is, just say what needs to be said. In this case you could reduce it to:

“The cat relaxed in the autumn sunshine.”

The next part of the sentence is clichéd and obvious, so it should be cut out completely.

If you have to include the simile, “Soaking up the warm rays like an orange Brillo pad,” (which is acceptable because it is building up an image of the cat’s rough fur) cut the unnecessary word – in this case ‘warm.’ Readers know that the sun’s rays are warm.

Children, particularly if they are beginners, reluctant readers, or not yet particularly fluent, need clarity in the writing style. But keeping your writing clear and simple is a good idea whatever your genre. The secret is not to draw attention to your words, but to use them as a vehicle to pull readers in to engage with the ideas you are trying to express.

Learn to vitalize your writing by Showing, not Telling.

About the Author:

Helen Brain is the author of over 30 books for children, and has contributed stories and plays to numerous school anthologies. Her teen novel, Tamara won an ATKV award. She has also published short stories for adults, and her highly acclaimed memoir, Here Be Lions was published by Oshun in 2006.

Helen is the tutor for the popular Basics of Creative Writing Course as well as the Write a Children’s Book Course and the Creative Writing for High School Students Course.

Contact us for more information about these courses.


Copyright Helen Brain. This article was originally published in Suite 101.

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