Best Writing Advice: Simplicity is Key

writing advice at the fire

By Baks Wa Muthamia

English is neither my first nor my second nor my third language. It comes in at a distant fourth! But I loved it growing up. It’s fascinating. Early enough, I knew my future lay with the language. I’d always be immersed in some hero’s world in a book I’d be hoarding. If I had to join a long line of teachers in my family, I’d probably be teaching English

Well, I became a writer, although it wasn’t easy at first.

I wrongly believed that I needed big English words. It made writing a miserable chore. My first role involved creating newsletters for a corporate client. I’d set out my workstation with sticky notes for ‘my big words of the day’ gleaned off the glorious Oxford dictionary. It’d take me ages to complete my writing tasks.

I’d burn my energy reserves fast. It didn’t feel right. What’s worse is that the habit didn’t stay at work. I kept journals that I can hardly recognize now: the writing feels so phoney. I’d torment friends and family with long letters in needlessly difficult English.

My break came unexpectedly.

I was visiting my grandparents. They live on a mountainside: the weather is always wet and chilly. Grandfather has a study, a special place. He loved his privacy. It always had a log fire burning and polished bookshelves laden with hundreds of books. A lot of life-changing conversations with my grandfather happened there.

That evening, he invited me to the study. I was covered with a quilt on my grandmother’s swivel leather seat beside his. We stared at the fire. He didn’t talk much. After a while, he swivelled to face me and nudged my shin with his toe.

He wanted to know what was draining me so much in the city. I looked at him, but he was in the shadows.

When I had got the writer’s job, I had subscribed him to our monthly newsletter. I wanted him to see my work. I could see, perhaps, a year’s worth of my magazines on his shelf.

‘It’s work. It’s so draining. Have you read those?’ I asked, pointing to the shelf.

He turns to the fire and shakes his head. Not without a trace of patronising guilt. I was hurt.

Grandpa took a swig of whisky, turned around.

‘Hey, big man. I know you work hard. But you people write complicated stuff. There’s no fun in reading it. Reading your magazine is tiring. Simplicity is key.’

Simplicity is key.

At that moment, I felt like I’d been drowning and just broke water for that first breath! An epiphany of sorts. If there had been a witch with claws on my back, Grandpa had ripped her right off. I was free – and I didn’t go back to writing newsletters.

I dived into creative writing. I started exploring. I’d infuse boring, austere corporate content with a storytelling style – the feedback was amazing! The readers liked stories told in simple everyday language. Basically, in the way we talk in a normal conversation.

Have you seen anyone using a dictionary on a bus or train? No? Thought so. Why then do we demand that of our readers?

Simplify your writing. The main objective is not to dazzle the reader. What drives me now is a desire to grip a reader’s attention, deliver a message – and leave them in a good kind of awe. Like the lingering taste of chocolate at the back of the mouth. 

About the Author

Kibaki Muthamia is a creative writer, based in Nairobi, Kenya. His strengths lie in SEO, native storytelling and creative brand marketing. When not moon-gazing on wind-swept beaches, he follows intuitive podcasts and documentaries.

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