Why keeping it simple is harder than you think

Why keeping it simple is harder than you think

L.S. LowryOne of the most common mistakes of the amateur in any creative field is to assume the rules can be broken. Or worse, ignored. Never mind all those hours of study mastering written grammar or artistic composition or the structure of a symphony. To them, that’s just too much hard work delaying their ‘genius’. And the amateur will often justify this attitude by referring to a famous practitioner who on the surface may seem to also have conveniently leapfrogged all that theory.

They’re wrong. Of course they are. But this is really just an excuse for me to talk about Lowry as a thinly veiled analogy on writing skill.

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Like many who grew up in Manchester, I have a deep, automatic and visceral connection with the art of L.S. Lowry. His industrial scenes, striking portraits and child-like figures capture the harshness of the city while overlaying it with an unmistakable patina of warm affection. It is an honest appreciation of Mancunian life that anyone from the city can’t hep but recognise.

But I’ve heard many comments over the years suggesting that because his art is often simple, it isn’t remarkable. He’s one of those artists where someone will say “I could do that”. Or, even more damningly, “He can’t paint very well”. Yes, I’ve stood next to people in galleries who have said this, clearly perplexed that people like me gush over him as possibly the greatest British artist of the Twentieth Century.

L.S. Lowry self portrait

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Of course, Lowry was a highly accomplished artist. His early paintings show great skill and a clear understanding of all the rules of composition, of anatomy, of colour. He painted and sketched and perfected his skill every single evening after returning home from his job as a rent collector.

So when Lowry’s style evolved to the ‘matchstick men’ he is most associated with, it was after years of personal study, training and experimentation. His ability to capture a look, a personality or a scene in just the briefest of brush strokes doesn’t indicate an unskilled artist avoiding the rules. It reveals a level of skill most artists never attain. Where one artist strives for realism to connect with the viewer, Lowry can achieve a far more powerful evocation with far, far less.

The highest achievement of a writer is for the rules to become invisible, for the final prose to flow as if no writer was ever there. The moment a reader marvels at the skill of your grammatical construction or breadth of vocabulary, the sentence is lost. Simple words are better. Simple sentences are best. But the simplest, most effective and invisible prose is only possible with the greatest of skill and complete understanding of every element, every nuance.

But because the most effective writing appears effortless, it has become commonplace for people to assume “I could do that”. No wonder professional writing is so often devalued.

Keeping it simple is actually very, very hard indeed.


  1. This is the first time that I have heard of the argument that keeping things simple is not that easy. I understand your point. Nobody will immediately have the same level of enlightenment like LS Lowry in a few seconds and have the ability to express complex things in simple matchstick figures. It will take time to understand complex things and takes even more time to express it in the shortest possible way. It is also a common trait particular to great writers. Some say that the shortest prose is the most beautiful one ever written. Having the right words to perfectly describe something in the shortest possible way needs a lot of thinking. Thanks for the interesting read!