John Larrysson Column: Keep It Simple
A Short Guide to Good Writing

Good writing is easy to read. A sentence should not have any unnecessary words. A paragraph should not have any unnecessary sentences. If you are building a car, you would not add an extra engine that just sits in a seat and does nothing. This suggestion does not mean that all sentences should be short and without detail, but that every word should be useful to the reader.

Too often students try to write more because their English teacher told them to write a certain number of words for their homework. However writing longer sentences than needed is poor English writing style.

Many common expressions are longer than needed.


Long version Short version
at this point in time now
ahead of schedule early
the majority of most
they arrived at an agreement they agreed
draw attention to show
used for agricultural purposes used for farming
she is the woman who she
during such time while
the fact that he had not succeeded his failure
in a hurried manner hurriedly

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One common student trick to easily meet a word limit for an assignment is to use a dictionary and replace words with their definitions. However for readers who already know these words reading all this extra text is a waste of time.

The wooden house was for sale cheaply because it had termites.

The wooden building made for people to live in was for sale at a low price because it had a tropical insect in it that eats wood.

Who is, which was, and similar structures are often unnecessary.

Mark, who is a student at the same class Mark, a classmate
The airport, which was built on Lantau Island, The airport, on Lantau Island,

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It is common for teachers to take one complex idea and rewrite it into several shorter sentences. This may make the text easier for young students to understand. However this group of short sentences is longer and takes more time to read than one complex sentence. When you are writing for readers with reasonable English, try to shorten your text by combining ideas in one long sentence. However don't put so many ideas together that the long sentence becomes difficult to read.

24 words 42 words
In 1838, Lin Zexu was sent to Guangdong as imperial commissioner by the Chinese Emperor to stop the importation of opium by the British. It was the year 1838. Lin Zexu was sent to Guangdong. He was sent by the Chinese Emperor. Lin was the imperial commissioner in Guangdong. As commissioner it was his job to stop the importation of opium. The British were importing opium.

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When you have a choice of synonyms, choose the simpler more common English word. Usually, but not always, the more common word is shorter. Many people use a word like vocabulary when they mean words. Saying, "You must study your new vocabulary." Sounds more arrogant than "You must study your new words." Many people use bigger important-sounding words like emporium instead of simple smaller words with the same meaning, like shop. Someone using the word emporium will probably charge you more money for the same thing sold in a shop.

(Some English writers try to use a French word to make their writing appear more sophisticated. Instead their work often looks poorly written. However this is not a common HK English problem.)

Simple Words More Difficult Words
Words Vocabulary (a set of words)
Keeping Maintaining
Showing Demonstrating
Similar Analogous
Shop Emporium
Clothing Attire
Help Assistance
Parts Components
Easy Facile

Don't use the word not when a one word opposite is available.

Not structure Opposite
not honest dishonest
not strong weak
not happy unhappy
not important unimportant
not practical silly/ impractical
did not remember forgot
did not pay any attention to ignored

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Good writing should be simple, clear and easy to read. Making your sentences and paragraphs extra long is a trick to make it seem like you wrote more than you actually did.

I have asked you to write in simple clear sentences and then told you how not to. It is a bit like giving pirates sword fighting lessons and then telling them not to fight. The message is to only use these types of tricks when you need to impress a teacher with a longer homework assignment. Do not try these tricks when you need to write something important for someone who wants to read what you wrote.

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by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.