Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Writing

Stephen King wrote an entire book on writing, but FLG decided to read The Gunslinger, first novel in The Dark Tower series, while on vacation, and King included this passage in his foreword explaining why he revised The Gunslinger many years after being published:

Before I close, I should say a word about the younger man who dared to write this book.   That young man had been exposed to far too many writing seminars, and had grown far too used to the ideas those seminars promulgate: that one is writing for other people rather than one's self; that language is more important than story; that ambiguity is to be preferred over clarity and simplicity, which are usually signs of a thick and literal mind.

That last part, the part about preferring ambiguity over clarity and simplicity, resonated with FLG.   His current job involves coaching junior employees on writing, speaking, and presentation.  He's constantly appalled at the average person in his field's facility with language.  It's terrible.   He's seen supposedly professional written documents littered with run-on sentences and passive voice.

A couple of years ago, FLG worked in a job where most of his colleagues were educated at prestigious institutions...Ivies, Duke, University of Chicago, Oxford, Cambridge, London School of Economics...you get the idea.   Back then, he was shocked when they didn't know who Kronos was or know much about Shakespeare, but the vast majority could write a clear, concise, and coherent sentence.

Currently, most of his co-workers went to Big 10 schools or are former military who completed a degree online.   The vast majority are smart folks who can get stuff done.   Rather than, for example, writing a policy position paper on it, but damn is their writing ever awful.   Rather than a Coke, he's tempted to buy the world a copy of The Elements of Style.

Some of the junior employees appreciate feedback.  In fact, one took a job at an extremely prestigious organization.  Not long after, she wrote to FLG thanking him because she'd been put in charge of reviewing the formal written products her department puts out.  Her writing was that much better than everybody else's there.  (Perhaps reviewing might be the shit job in the department, but she didn't seem to think so.)

Others..not so much.  When FLG explains that fewer words are better...that their primary goals should be clarity first, followed closely by concision, they nod their heads and continue churning out rambling, ambiguous prose.   At one point, FLG took to editing an entire paper to show how he could reduce the length by 30% without losing an ounce of meaning.    (In fact, he thought he improved the clarity with the shorter length.)  'Oh, okay' was the response.

Getting back to the specifics of the passage above.   The thick and literal mind part resonated with FLG because in many cases the root cause of the ambiguous, lengthy prose is the desire to cover their ass, which in turn leads to tons of caveats in the argument.  Very literal and thick minds.   This is different from weaselly ambiguity because they lack the courage to write what they really want to say.   That's a problem as well, but not the literal and thick problem.    The literal and thick problem is when somebody can't write "The Sun is out during the day" without including "except during an eclipse" or "when it's really cloudy and it's there, but behind the clouds" or some such nonsense immaterial to the claim made in the sentence.

FLG fears he sounds like some sort of pedantic asshole.  And maybe he is.  But he steadfastly believes that if everybody wrote more short, concise, and active sentences, the world would be a much improved place.  And if being a pedantic asshole makes that happen, then he'll gladly accept the moniker.
 
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