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Complex Versus Minimalist Writing: Which One is Better?

Remember those ostentatious sonnets your English teachers forced you to annotate down to the barest detail? Or those convoluted narratives that made your head ache? Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens were all champions of the written word, and no one can dispute that.

Their writing is what can be defined as complex. You usually have to re-read it over and over to grasp the allegory’s meaning, and even then there is still so much room for interpretation. Complex writing consists intricate details and layered imagery, and every sentence seems to be a riddle, every paragraph a puzzle. The sentences can be drawn out and long, reading breathlessly in your mind.

I used to groan and throw my hands up in the air in exasperation. There was no way I could ever measure up to that calibre. Then, I read Night by Elie Wiesel, a haunting memoir of his experience in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The book was about a hundred pages long, which seemed unfit to carry the momentous capacity of the topic. He used short and simple sentences, for example, “In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.” His diction was eloquent but incredibly minimalist, and he rarely wasted time expounding the sky or landscape.

The book had a paradoxical sensation of carrying an immense amount of emotion without seeming to have any of it.

I found myself more profoundly affected than I ever had been from Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson. A single sentence alone reduced me to tears. The book had a paradoxical sensation of carrying an immense amount of emotion without seeming to have any of it. Night seemed to be the polar opposite of all that I had believed to be great literature, and yet it was one of the central factors in making Wiesel a recipient of the Novel Peace Price in 1986.

The more I mulled it over, the more I recognized more books with similar stylistic approaches. Ernest Hemingway, most prominently, displays the same unadorned prose. His writing clarity is best shown in The Old Man and the Sea such as in this excerpt: “Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

Hemingway was ahead of his time, because it seems that the value of this kind of writing has finally been put in the limelight. Many modern works of literature employ his and Wiesel’s tactics, such as They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, Red Queen  by Victoria Aveyard, and Divergent by Veronica Roth.

I looked between the lines, in the space between each word, the silence between each sentence, because there was more to be said.

The reoccurring element in this less-is-more angle is not what is explicit in the text but what is implied. The writer silhouettes the overarching portrait to an extent and leaves it up to you to fill in the blanks — in Wiesel’s Night, I could sense the empty despair in his phrasing, as if nothing would suffice to translate his trauma. From the Hemingway quote, one can infer the character’s sage stance on life and appreciation of his skills. I looked between the lines, in the space between each word, the silence between each sentence, because there was more to be said.

I found some part of myself in its austerity; the elegant, almost understated diction and the stilted syntax.

Many could brush this off as lazy or substandard. They take one glance at the lack of detail and assume the worst, when in fact, one can argue that the minimalism approach in writing can be just as or even more arduous than complex writing. Being consciously foggy without being too opaque can be a difficult equilibrium, and exacting every part of a scene can feel safer. Moreover, while simplistic writing may not have the same thought provoking affectations, its impact is no less powerful — as evident of my reaction to Night. It has a jarring, poignant way of picking out the fruit without beating around the bush.

All in all, minimalistic writing is no less and no more worthy to be read than its counterpart, and vice versa. Both have their perks and their downfalls. Complex writing is gorgeous and rich but can be a piece of work to comprehend, and simplistic writing is sharp and moving, but it can seem too blunt or monotonous. No writer should be condemned for crafting in a particular manner, as long as it’s genuine to the individual. Complex writers shouldn’t have to hold themselves back, and minimalist writers shouldn’t have to extend so far. Or perhaps you’re an amalgam of both styles! Personally, I like to toggle between each extreme, but most of the time I rest in the middle. The art of rhetoric is wonderfully chaotic, and I’m sure that there are a dozen other variations to writing I haven’t mentioned. At the end of the day, it’s important to realize that literature is a vast dimension with few boundaries, and that art cannot always be labeled as “right” or “wrong.”

To top this off, I’ll conclude with a favorite quote of mine from Song of Achilles — a novel I consider has simplistic writing — that makes sense perfectly in the context of this article: “He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?”

Photo: rawpixel via Unsplash

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Phyllis is an aspiring writer who loves to eat, sleep, and binge Netflix. She lives in a quaint town of Ohio in the United States, and loves traveling very much. Her main focus is on arts and culture, but also includes mental health and poetry as well.

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