Writing simply

Trying to write more simply. I tend to give too much or too little context in my writing, contextualising for an audience is hard. I also tend to write in a slightly performative way which can get in the way of meaning/understanding.

By borrowing from the world of software development, particularly the philosophies of Ken Thompson and Rob Pike, I have tried to come up with a few rules for writing better. Whether I manage to follow them at all will be a different story.

I want my writing to be:

  1. Honest. Let my writing reflect my reality, acknowledge my biases, fears, weaknesses, and privileges.

  2. Clear. Say only what needs saying, write at length only when there is much to be said. Clarity is better than cleverness.

  3. Simple. Strive for simplicity, add complexity only where I must. If I cannot say it simply, I probably don’t understand it deeply.

  4. Proportional. In breadth and strength. Not everything need be a tome, nor need it be stated strongly. The shaky, short thought may yet strengthen and grow but in the mean time, let it be seen in its true proportions.

  5. Iterative. Simple is easily understood, not easily done, it must be iterated towards, diligently refined until it reaches a better form. The same is true with honesty, clarity, and proportion.

I’ll furnish this suite of rules with a tertiary one:

As with most things, there is room for refinement still in these rules, they are the work of half an hour, but I like the gist of them.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


  1. Notes on C Programming by Rob Pike
  2. The Robustness Principle by Jon Postel
  3. A Quarter-Century of Unix by Peter H. Salus
  4. Various writing from Ken Thompson