I wonder if Leo Tolstoy had this problem

I was trying to write a note the other day to a coworker, and I kept getting stuck. The email wasn’t saying what I wanted it to say. I wasn’t writing an important treatise on the state of man. It wasn’t War and Peace. It was just a quick work note, but I was still struggling. 

If I had been writing with pen and paper, there would have been a large pile of scrunched-up paper balls in and around my waste basket. Instead it was an lengthy note that scrolled down the page. I would cut a portion of the note, and then add in two or three others that made as much sense as what I had just cut. I had enough.

I got up out of my seat, realizing that I was making the note more complicated and complex than it needed to be. Now, the topic had a long history that needed an explanation, but what was supposed to take me a few minutes to dash off was becoming a 30-minute task. I stepped away to grab lunch and hoped that my head would clear and the note would write itself when I sat back down at my desk.

I grabbed my lunch from the refrigerator and skimmed a book on writing that I keep on my desk. Two great quotes on writing jumped out immediately:

  • “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” –Jack Kerouac
  • “A word after a word after a word is power.” –Margaret Atwood

I stewed in frustration while I ate. When my lunch was over, I sat back down, but this time I followed the advice that had popped up when I opened the book: where anything was long, I made it simpler and shorter. I envisioned that I was talking to my wife, instead of writing some bland note directed to a nebulous stratosphere. Sure enough, I had my note in a few short minutes. I went from hating my job to loving it. 

Writing can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a heck of a lot easier when we take the simpler path. And yes, I suspect Leo Tolstoy the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina and other books, had his own problems. My reminder to myself the next time I sit down to write. It’s another famous piece of advice, albeit a little more informal: “Keep it simple stupid.”

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