Keeping the Writing Simple

Writing easy-to-understand and memorable RFP responses isn’t easy.  The place to start  is to keep things as simple as we can.  

“Write drunk; edit sober.”

The first time I read this little gem somewhere online, I laughed aloud.  Working on RFP responses, I’d often wondered what was wrong with the experts whose drafts I was editing, and what would explain the stream-of-consciousness jumbles I often encountered.  Maybe this was the answer: They were drunk.

Not surprisingly, this saying is widely attributed online to a writer who made no secret of his drinking habits: Ernest Hemingway.  But it seems that this attribution, like so many others, is suspect.  Instead, this version likely originated in a Peter de Vries novel. 

“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

The character speaking was, apparently, based on Dylan Thomas: as reasonable a literary link as Hemingway, I’d say.

Who took it from this lengthy version to the one that now appears on t-shirts?  Dunno.  I do know that it’s much more memorable in this four-word form, as are other simple sayings that set up a similar contrast.

Measure twice; cut once.

Buy low; sell high.

Work fast; eat slow.

Does our physiological bilateral symmetry predispose us to think in binary terms—a leaning to “on one hand, on the other” thinking?  Does this structure subtly appeal to the left and right hemispheres of our brains?  Or are we just not smart enough to hold more than four words in our heads at a time?  Dunno.

I do know that we often make our RFP responses too complicated, and end up failing to communicate simply by trying to communicate too much. 

You know what Hemingway said, right?

“Keep it simple, stupid!”

Or maybe it was Dylan Thomas.  Dunno.

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2 Comments

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2 Responses to Keeping the Writing Simple

  1. Jim Taylor

    I spent about ten years working with Eric McLuhan, son of the famed Marshall McLuhan. Eric did all kinds of esoteric analyses of literature and linguistics. I remember once he explained to me that the nature rhythm of the English language is four beats to the bar, just like pop jazz. The 18th century poets like Alexander Pope considered iambic pentameter to be the finest form (and actually rewrote a lot of Shakespeare into iambic pentameter because they thought he had missed the boat). But as Eric pointed out, they almost inevitably wrote four beats to the line, but then added a moralistic word to prop the line up to five beats. Take out the morally coloured adjective or adverb, and they were right back to four beats (or feet, or whatever) per line.
    Jim

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim – That’s fascinating! So we’re all doing the equivalent of jazz improvisation as we speak, and jazz standards as we give formal, planned speeches? It takes some hubris to rewrite Shakespeare, although I think I’ve met folks like that in Proposal Land, too! I wonder how far that goes – I was listening to some First Nations drummers the other day, and suspect that their rhythm was 4 beats to the bar, too.