On Writing and Complexity (Part 1)

Doodle Animal
Photo credit: neonbubble

I had the good fortune one of these days to help a friend edit his dating profile. He is a good looking, normal enough, fairly interesting guy but this is what he had as his killer writeup. He was sure that the following would have droves of women impressed:

I am a goal oriented, driven, optimistic, hard working, funny individual. I like hiking, biking, travelling and reading. Favourite book: Life of Pi.

Now, when he told me his favourite book was Life of Pi, I could not deny it. I had seen a copy of the same on his bookshelf in his living room. The goal orientedness probably came from the objective statement of his scintillating resume. As for the rest, well, he did have a sense of humour. When people laughed at his jokes.

I told him to bring a little more life into his profile. “How?” he said. “Just more examples. More concrete things.” My version of Show, don’t tell.

Now god knows I’m not a dating expert. But I did fear that people would think he was either uninteresting (rather boring despite the hiking and biking) or “simple.”

And no one wants to date either boring or simple.

So I advised him to revise the writeup.

He expanded his version and brought it over again.

Hello. It’s me. Every morning I wake up with a smile on my face. I am very successful. I want to make myself better and better everyday. So I work hard. I bring a smile to everyone who meets me. I want to be the sunshine of your life. I am very interesting. I like to hike, bike and read stuff. I read the book Life of Pi in one sitting.

The writeup was fine. It was correct. What else?

I didn’t think I could really express what was lacking. So I let him go.

But I wondered about the women who would be assessing him. What kind of women would like to read this? What would they think of him?

Would they think that he was a simple guy?

What was lacking in his writeup, for the lack of a better term, was something I would call complexity.

Everyday at the departmental store, I see colourful cards in pastel shades in the stationary section that write about smiles and sunshine and happiness and life and moonshine and the best of everything.

The world is new, the mind is soaring, people are wonderful and the world is an adventure full of smiles.

It’s the same with Facebook.

This was a status update I encountered recently (or something very like it):

Isn’t it wonderful how life always brings surprises? (picture of object ABC) A simple object ABC but how it shows that life still has the basic human good, little surprises around the corner, genuine people who always have a smile!

  • Cliches, quotes, superlatives. Is that what takes away complexity?
  • Or is it just a lack of cynicism that removes the dash of realism from life that makes writing appear simple?
  • Or is it a lack of concreteness, a tendency to generalize the world into a ball of saccharine sweetness that takes away its complexity?
  • Or is it a tendency to overstate ideas?

What would be the difference between the Facebook status update above and one that said

I was surprised by object ABC left at my doorstep this morning. It made me happy. Wonder who left it there. It brings back my faith in life.

Is this one simply more believable and hence more complex?

Sometimes a lack of complexity and this tendency to generalize can come out of anxiety. You see this often at the beginning of mandatory student papers.

Throughout the history of time human beings have wanted to look for their roots.

Sometimes this same template is modified for something quite different, say, an essay on film.

Throughout the history of time human beings have been influenced by movies.

What does this make us think about the person behind the sentence?

[Continued on my next post: On Writing and Complexity (Part 2)]

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52 thoughts on “On Writing and Complexity (Part 1)”

  1. Too many self-formalized sentences starting with the word ‘I’ doesn’t look right, for starters.
    “Throughout the history of time human beings have been influenced by movies” is punctual and serious, but placed wrong (overused) can appear “higher than though” or otherwise crude if it’s completely unnecessary in its use. “Many people like ABC” actually gets to the point. (And for a dating site, how exactly does that “many people” relate to the individual in their description?)

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  2. I’ve found myself wondering about this. I work with researchers. I know a /boatload/ of Computer Science Ph.D. students. And all of them have this idea that Subject-Verb-Object is the ideal way to communicate, because it’s precise. It’s accurate. And yeah, that’s true, but…

    I think there’s just a difference between a grammatically correct sentence and a /story/. You don’t have to just write /more words/. You just have to choose interesting, engaging details. It’s like you said–You were trying to encourage him to “Show, don’t tell.”

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  3. While your friend’s first try WAS a bit dry, the second one would totally annoy me IF I was on a dating site. Having never been on one, do people actually complement themselves like this — “I bring a smile to everyone who meets me”??? I’d be all, “Easy fella”. ha ha.

    Of the Facebook posts the second one is FAR better in my book. Shorter, more succinct, and less syrupy. 🙂

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  4. Your posts are always thought provoking and helpful. Amazes me the responses & how different readers focus on different aspects of the post.
    Think our writing must incorporate both, simplicity at times and complexity to keep our interest and make us ponder. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. ‘Warts’ can be surgically removed…we soon forget we even had the warts but we stay true to whom we really are. The beauty of writing is we can become the persons we wish to be, but, generally, only in print…and only with the reader’s acceptance.

    Just trying a tad of gobbledygook for a little ‘complexity’ while handing out Misha’s ‘smiles.’

    Enjoyed your post.

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  6. As I go along in this writing journey – and I do believe that you learn to write as you write – I have discovered that what I once thought was complexity turned out, at times, to be wordiness. I sometimes go back to the streamlined-down-to-the-very-basics of Hemingway’s writing to remind me that complexity does not have to be wordy!

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  7. Dude!!

    So Loving what you allowed me to find!!
    THANK YOU!!

    Complexity…I believe that it is more likely obtained when one does less!
    Hence Hemingway’s Iceberg Effect!!
    Then there’s always people that over-analyze and read waaaay too much into things…

    Not that I would know anything about that 😉

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  8. RE lack of complexity:
    I think that this comes from being insincere. Don’t get me wrong- I think that your buddy is probably a great guy and that he really does want to find the right girl.

    However, I suspect that he’s apprehensive about being judged and to protect himself he’s written a profile that nobody can find any fault with. I mean, who doesn’t like nice things?

    Fastest route to complexity: say something you believe in, that you think your ‘soul-mate’ would appreciate and that will piss off almost everybody else.

    If he writes like that, then his profile will weed out the poor-fits for him. Revel in the power of choice! Know thyself!

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  9. Love the line…Or is it just a lack of cynicism that removes the dash of realism from life that makes writing appear simple? Exactly what I had in mind when I named my blog. When you remove realism from your thoughts you appear simple.

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  10. If this is somewhat about writing, it’s worth pointing out that, in the Jane Austen novels, characters who presented well at first didn’t usually turn out to be good romantic prospects. The people who couldn’t sell themselves well, often did.

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  11. I have participated in online dating. I have read thousands of profiles and dated far too many. ( apparently I have high standards )

    His first write up would have the hidden message of : money, I works hard and make a lot of money. He would get responses especially with a cute picture. The last one would scare away the mush minded.

    I had a very popular introduction on POF ( Plenty of Fish ) , I retold a story of being at the beach as a little girl then I shared a bit about me. an intelligent mancould discern much from the story and reply with insight.

    Great post !

    P.S. I am still single 😉

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  12. Love these sorts of discussions. to me it’s the difference between ‘flat’ writing and quirky or character -filled writing – it’s also the difference between the people who taught poor chap to write – the teachers who expected grammar but no life, and the others who wouldn’t tolerate cliches, but loved honesty…

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  13. Great post. Writing a dating site profile can be daunting. More importantly how does one add complexity to any writing? I’m looking forward to your next post.

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  14. Interesting topic. I don’t use FB but I did agonize over my summary when I created a twitter account. It’s a tough balancing act to sound witty, but at the same time inviting with any online profile. Even my Linkedin summary – I wanted to sound professional but not stuffy, and didn’t want it to read like something I pulled out of a resume book. I don’t know that I have much more to add to this discussion, but I just felt like chiming in.

    Just based on my limited experience in social media and WP, simple writing does seem more effective than complex writing.

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  15. I think the problem is, in part, how the human mind tends to automate repetitive tasks. It’s like my drive to work in the morning, I see the streets and the other cars and the signals well enough to avoid being in an accident, but I don’t really pay attention to anything.

    On the other hand, things that break the pattern–having to take a detour to avoid an accident, getting pulled over, a sudden rainstorm–engage my mind and make me pay attention.

    One fairly simple technique for getting a reader’s attention is to confound expectations. For example, in the dating profile referenced above the phrase “bring a smile to everyone I meet” is predictable. Cliche. It’s easy to read a sentence like that without paying attention, because we’ve read so many similar sentences.

    Something like: “I keep a handful of smiles in my back pocket and hand them out like free samples of shampoo to everyone I meet” expresses the same sentiment with an unexpected analogy and gives the reader something new to work with.

    Just my thoughts.

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  16. I think sometimes simple writing can be a lot more effective! Depends on your audience or in the case of a dating profile, whom you want to attract. Hopefully he will find his match!!

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