Form follows function ...
Writing Style and Clarity
This continues our last post on Notes on Writing. We'd expected to explore how writing style and clarity impact the success or failure of a writing project. Here, as before, I observe the same advice that is constantly given to writers, and which I previously passed on to the reader. I write what I know.
Most of us have one or several different styles of writing with which we're entirely comfortable, with which our friends are familiar, and which also get the point across appropriately to the current "conversational tone". If we're happy with it, and if most of our writing is for e-mail and business correspondence, this is certainly adequate. Sometimes people will still interrupt us mid-sentence while we're driving home a point. Sometimes we'll ask others what they thought of an e-mail we posted, only to finally receive tacit confirmation they haven't gotten around to reading it.
The writer's task is more complicated. We have to build portfolios of styles appropriate to dialog, dialect, expository essays, humor, editorializing, celebration and commiseration, and even, perhaps, serious technical or scientific writing. We have to learn techniques to seamlessly transition between styles as emphasis and perspective shift within our document. To make all this effort worthwhile, we have to learn how to engage the reader.
Our premise here will be: the rules for effective written communication need to be remarkably similar to oral delivery methods: public speaking.
Right now let me stress again: I'm setting myself up as neither arbiter of, nor role model for, good writing style. Good style can and should be as varied as the individuals who create it. To study the possibilities of style, at a minimum we'd need to:
Firstly, there are surely hundreds of excellent manuals on style, including the often-cited compact standard, Strunk and White's Element of Style. It would be presumptuous to try to emulate those works. Instead, let's ask a more basic question: what is style? How do we choose and develop it?
Secondly, a brief glance at these standard reference manuals should be more than enough to convince us that grammar, syntax, punctuation and even spelling are inseparably bound up in any discussion of style and writing skill. Put that way, it would seem that a perfectly edited document might go a long way to clearing up any petty quarrels over "style". Yet we know this is not usually, and perhaps even rarely, the case. A perfectly edited document may still add very little to our understanding of a topic. It might conceivably even remain numbingly unapproachable.
Thirdly, we hope to show it's really helpful to consider writing as a codified transcription of speech. Why? Aren't we trained early to recognize the many valid reasons why the worldly domains of speech and the written word must remain distinct? As wonderful as it may be to finally master the writing of some few of the myriad idioms of human dialog, we get into inextricable trouble when we indiscriminately mix dialog and expository writing styles.
We're not talking about mixing dialog with expository writing. This is about remembering that expository writing is an abstraction of speech.
When we write, we should regard where expository writing styles originate. From the isolation of what we used to call the "typewriter room", that lofty aerie of the thinker in solitude, it's all too easy to fall into insulating ourselves from the reader. No matter how formal the style we employ, we speak to each listener. What we say is only heard as one-on-one.
The risk of ignoring the reader in our passionate quest for truth, like the sound of one hand clapping, is that we may not be heard at all.
In its most direct form, writing records the spoken word and idea onto a permanently encoded medium. This applies to the novel, college thesis, news journal, weblog, and the legal proceedings of the United States Senate. It also applies to poetry, and to more abstract, stylized arts such as sheet music, painting and song.
Once we extend the concept of speech to music and painting, it becomes obvious we are really talking about the range of human expression. Writing, apart from considerations of syntax and grammar, is art. As art, is it any good?
Of course we are only going to talk about the human language of concepts, codified in paper, stone, bytes, bauds, points or pixels. As we write, perhaps we will remember that the reader, reading, hears the writer, speaking -- possibly to a large auditorium or playhouse, perhaps to the great and august assemblage of important personages.
Often as not, the writer is really speaking to a random sampling of passers-by who may (or may not) pause on the sidewalk to hear what is said.
Too many pundits have already observed vast chasms between the speaking styles of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. So, wouldn't those same differences also apply to written transcripts of those speeches?
What, exactly, is Style?
It is always a good idea to begin with conventional word usage. Dictionary.com offers 16 distinct usages of the noun style. Below we've excerpted some of them:
In regarding writing as a codified transcription of speech, the "code" here is currently accepted writing rules and conventions. The writer doesn't get to pick and choose which definition applies to the craft. It's all of them. "I have satisfied the rules or customs of typography, punctuation, spelling, and related matters" (def. 16) no longer works. The nuances of style that apply to speech and writing also relate to how we size up the speaker.
The following quotation appeared in the 1960's in the Traveler's Times, a public-service "free space" bulletin provided by a local advertising council on the walls of the public transit busses in Alameda County, California. I wrote it down, but not immediately. So it is probably not verbatim. It will work for our purposes:
Whether or not we think it's fair, we need to include ourselves when we size up the writer and analyze the content of what the writer says. Compare and contrast the subtexts here: (a) the dictionary.com definition #2 example with (b) the typical sensation inspired by Traveler's Times citation:
So: what are we really saying? Must we write to the standards of a popularity contest or a People magazine? No, not at all.
Let's suppose that we already have a topic we would like to work into an article. We're overflowing with enthusiasm for both topic and subject matter, and our notes confirm we have a lot to say. Let's further say that we already have the experience, skill and maturity to avoid trying to impress or intimidate our readership with our experience, skill and maturity.
Now the question remains: of all the possible ways in which we might choose a style to convey our ideas, which ones of those best communicate both content and enthusiasm? We'll look at some examples.
I do enjoy following television's NOVA (PBS) and the newer The Universe (History Channel). Two regulars on NOVA I admire are Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Dr. Alexei Filippenko. Both men are accredited scientists, accomplished popular authors, as well as being part-time television science show hosts. Both men have won numerous awards recognizing their promotion and popularizing of science.
In fact, in this Writing department, Summitlake.com featured mini-bios of both individuals: Alex Filippenko and Neil deGrasse Tyson . They are among six people I chose for my "Most Admired" series. What prompted those mini-bios was the same question that prompted this article: why are these men such effective communicators?
Consider the following two excerpts. The topic I chose, believe it or not, is light red-shifting in the expanding universe. Links to the original source material will follow. Which do you think is clearer?
Answer: the above texts say the same thing but are intended for entirely different audiences. They are both excellent examples of the art. What differs is how we relate to them.
Excerpt 1: From the linked paper Einstein’s Biggest Blunder? The Case for an Expanding Universe. It was delivered by Dr. Alex Filippenko, University of California Berkeley.
This text provides the gist of the writer’s thesis in plain unemotional academic English that most of us can follow on some general level. At the same time, it incorporates abstruse math and physical “pointer” references to critical points in the proof of theory. Understandably, these scientific underpinnings are absolute requirements for the audience of professional astronomers and physicists.
Please, for a moment, follow the link to the original web PDF - just to look at how much of the full document is filled with colorful equations, drawings and graphs. . I don't understand most of the equations either, but the audience does - they are scientists.
Papers that read (to us) exactly like this perform an essential service to the world and the scientific community. They pave the way for sharing of scientific knowledge (yes, they speak their own language), documenting the supporting evidence. This time-honored method avails others of the means of determining for themselves the validity and merits of the theories and research presented.
If we happen to be already up to speed on this topic, we are probably at the post-doctorate level. Professionally, we expect that the technical documentation won't just be supplementary reading; it's required. Here, Excerpt 1 is obviously the clearer of the two.
Excerpt 2: From the NOVA text transcript for “RUNWAWAY UNIVERSE”, PBS Airdate: November 21, 2000. The speaker is Dr. Alex Filippenko.
The topic and author in the two excerpts are one and the same.
If we happen to have perhaps some interest in the cosmos and the history of the universe, but with no particular grasp of the technical measurements, physics and math, this lack of the doctorate degree should in no way serve as an impediment to learning as much as we want to know. Here, Excerpt 2 is obviously the clearer of the two.
Writers and speakers like Filippenko and Tyson know their audience.
Business and Politics
We have a plethora of examples from the world of politics. So much of the news follows it; we have so many politicians. Our current president Barack Obama might be one of the more electrifying speakers to sit in the White House in the past 50 years.
Remember that morning when President Bush addressed the nation after the dreadful 911 terrorist attacks? I felt a flash of humiliation for our country, for we'd offered the world a well-intentioned, uninspiring, earnest voice that had so little memorable to say. When I heard the UK's Prime Minister Tony Blair address the world, on on the same day and topic, I felt my inspiration renewed, pride for the UK, and pride for our country.
Al Gore was a public figure most people either loved or hated. I truly hate to admit the real reason I voted against him in the 2000 elections. I sized up Gore as a deadly-dull blowhard: uninspiringly boring. Who could have guessed this was the same Gore who would later deliver to the nation his landmark book An Inconvenient Truth and his stunning live verbal presentations? When the world finally listened to Al Gore with bated breath, he wrote and spoke well and memorably. He had something to say.
Our message: text is speech. It behooves us to study speech, for the rules for doing justice to our topic are so similar.
We were talking about physics and astronomy, and certainly not because scientists are generally regarded as setting the standard for politicians and authors in written or spoken presentation. In fact, the absent-minded professor has become a popular cliché in the public eye - and even in kid's cartoons. Despite my obvious lay interest in science, astronomy is an excellent topic for this part of our investigation into the written and spoken word. Most readers will not likely get overly entangled in the philosophical and scientific content.
Video Demo - Live Science
Accomplished authors develop a finely-tuned sense of the spoken word, for which they become famous. These artists would never explain, "Jones sounded like a mean, tough hombre whose words could cut you down faster than a vigilante death sentence." They would show us. Many classic short stories consist almost entirely of dialog; we know when the guy in the black hat is speaking, just as surely as we recognize the voice of Clint Eastwood in For a Fistful of Dollars.
And so we discover a new kind of absurdity in any extended written discussion of verbal delivery technique, exactly at the time we need to discuss it. How does written analysis perform justice to an outstanding live oral presentation?
So, if you haven’t caught the charismatic Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson on NOVA or other science shows: it is always difficult to locate a video on those few occasions when you actually want one, but I located a classic Tyson YouTube video. This presentation is an excerpt on "Death by Giant Meteor . Dr. Tyson delivered this at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, on February 19, 2008.
If you're able to watch the Dr. Tyson video, You do need broadband. Please keep in mind:
Questions: we said there would be no science quiz. Below is an excerpt from Dr. Tyson's Apophis meteor transcript, for questions we'll have for the writers' quiz.
So: as writers, how would you field the following? (There's no answer sheet - this is for you to ponder):
Defining Writing Style
Now that we've looked at some written and spoken examples, it's time to draw some generalized conclusions about what we've seen:
Defining Writing Clarity
Becoming "The Reader Over Our Shoulders"
The Reader Over Our Shoulders: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose is actually another classic writer's reference, by Robert Graves, the same Robert Graves of I Claudius fame. As silly as this sounds, I am not quite sure I ever actually read his handbook, though I would like to , for the meaning of the book title itself is delightfully intuitive. It has become a conversational icon:
In the ideal writer's world, every writer would have one trusted spouse, friend or partner who would read our work back to us, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, orally. It is here, in our critical appraisal of the style of others, that our innate impatience with rambling sentences, awkward constructs and out-of-sequence stories rears its all-too-human head:
But there's the stuff that busts up marriages. Most of us get to do our own scullery chores. This is why we say, rather than rush to print, we should put our project down and look at it in the morning when we get stuck - and we will get stuck. We get stuck when we know we could have done better, but aren't sure where or how. If we aren't critical readers over our own shoulders, who else is going to be?
A knack for reading our own work critically, as another might, is not inherited. I certainly never found it an easily learned talent. In high school, I discovered styles of English composition that would help me get the A grade, and the style was coaxed a little to the tastes of each teacher. In college, professors weren't so gracefully fooled. I could raise my C+ paper to a B-. Three hours of words could have been better dispatched with half an hour of real research. My papers were innovative, short in design effort, and often lacking any really convincing enthusiasm.
It took me twenty-five years to un-learn the bad habits self-taught in the first ten. There were darn few people who enjoyed my writing enough to actually ask for more. Has anyone else been there too?
One never feels one has mastered it. I am certainly not that master. One thing I did learn the hard way: the kind of writing that I was fair at in, say, personal journals, just doesn't work at all when writing is intended for publication.
Building the Story or Article
So let's look at one real master of effective written delivery. In the current May 25 issue of The New Yorker, writer Elizabeth Kolbert offers The Sixth Extinction, a feature article. (Web abstract:The Sixth Extinction? - you need to be registered to read the full web text). Here are her credentials, cited from The New Yorker:
Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999. Her stories for the magazine have included political profiles, book reviews, Comment pieces, and extensive writing on climate change. Her three-part series on global warming, “The Climate of Man,” won the 2006 National Magazine Award for Public Interest, the 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award, and the 2006 National Academies Communication Award. . . .
Writing About Extinction
The thesis of the article is that we may right now have already begun the onset of a Sixth great wave of extinctions. The First Extinction was "The Great Dying" event, in the late Ordovician period some 450 million years ago. The Fifth event terminated the Cretaceous period, popularized as the famed great meteor strike at the Chicxulub impact crater, in the Gulf of Mexico, and known as the end of the age of dinosaurs.
Had this been a scientific paper, Kolbert would have laid it all out first in thumbnail précis: an enumeration of five previous great extinctions, the accepted causes of them, the specific species or phyla most heavily affected, the global-scale evidence that we may be beginning the Sixth, the ecosphere-scale evidence that something is happening to the species, and then, the supporting data gathered so far on all the particular species that are either on the way out, or that may actually have become extinct already.
Not much fun, but in science you give away the punch line first - scientists do not like surprises - and the next hundred or so pages provide the supporting documentation and data.
Kolbert built an expository article intended for a lay audience that may or may not have a good understanding of the chain of events, and then, within that framework, she built a story. This inner story centers around a scientist, a grad student named Karen Lips, who, for the past two decades, has helped prove that something is happening globally to the frogs.
I was already familiar with the story, because after it hit the scientific journals, it hit BBC News. But Kolbert did not lay it all out as BBC did. She laid it out in "discovery" fashion, as it was revealed in the investigations of Susan Lips and her associates, as it played itself out across continents, and as the world struggled to come up with answers: how could this possibly happen?
Here, more or less, is how Kolbert built her inner story:
African Clawed Frogs
As you will see if you access the New Yorker abstract, it isn't just the frogs. The frogs, like canaries in the coal mine, are just symptomatic of the much larger-scale problem. Since the advent of man, it seems, species are disappearing on every continent as fast as we've increased our population to expand to every corner of the globe. It's not what you'd think, either: like the carrier pigeon, we have in fact killed off some species, but that doesn't explain the disappearance of all the others Man had no predatory or commercial interest in. Something else is happening ...
Kolbert's method of written delivery works for either the lay person, or the scientist. It's interesting, and chock full of relevant details when and where we need them.
Many of us dislike outlining. But there's a Clarity issue. How many of us could faithfully re-create the flow and intrigue in the bullet-pointed story above -- if I'd presented it in narrative instead of a simple outline?
Of all the many fascinating ways to tell or invent a story, including horror stories, one of the most effective is to build the plot and expand the theme as it happened (or might have happened) in real life. This layer-by-layer technique allows the reader to participate in the discovery process, by knowledge brought to the topic, stoked by an animated imagination and sense of excitement, rather than relegating our reader to the role of passive observer.
Involving the Reader
One of the worst things we can do to the reader is leave him or her out of the conversation.
A truism in education is that we need to teach a new concept three different ways before the student truly will grasp it. Tell me the first time. Show me, the second. Give me another example, the third time. For the educator, the keyword is three - there are fundamental reasons why we learn this way.
For the writer, the keyword is different. The first presentation of the written idea explains; the second and third instances elaborate with more detail, while teaching us how to discern subtler variations on the theme. It's no stretch of the imagination to realize that musical themes work their magic in a similar way. For better or for worse, endless variations on the same theme are less successful in the writer's craft.
When we read Dickens or Hugo, Steinbeck or Stegner, H.G. Wells or [your choice here], to be honest: didn't our minds race light-years ahead of the paragraph?
I also believe that most of us will never be a Steinbeck or Stegner, and that this isn't an important measure of our lives. Immortality is nice to visualize, largely unattainable, and worthwhile when we strive for it. Should this stop us from learning what tools of the trade we can along the way?
We, you and I, understood this much all along: there is no manual for successful writing, unless it's life itself, and this can't be that mythical manual. Once published, even a personal journal is actually much more about helping the reader discover what they want to know, than about our own declaration of particular life experiences we personally are driven to share.
When we meet the person beginning a sentence with "you'll appreciate this", what percentage of the time would we guess we actually find ourselves appreciating it?
Rules of the Road
Just as in driving, there are some common-sense rules of courtesy toward our readership. Here, very incompletely - and quite open to opinion - are some "do and don't" bullet points:
On the positive side:
When we began this essay we asked, how can we apply our understanding of style and clarity to good writing technique?
In Notes on Writing we said, "write what you know". We said "control content". We said "Don't start your final 'polishing' until you've removed all the pits and gouges." And we said, "Follow that vision".
Having done all that, content flow should start to come naturally. The architect Louis Sullivan said, "form ever follows function". When the writer is "on a roll", style changes begin to flow with the content. When this isn't happening, put to it to rest; sleep on it overnight. We may not be able to devote the same hours to practice that we all expect of the pro athlete, but we don't need a writer to tell us that we improve with practice.
Since we are all editing our documents four or five times, and rewriting early drafts from scratch (aren't we all doing that?), why not cultivate the habit of writing drafts, or portions of them, in different styles? Which work best for the purpose we have in mind? What exactly do we mean when we define, by default, a standard of "best"?
To conclude on a trail we hiked before: it's really not about us, it's about the reader. Be the kindly tour guide who redirects the reader along the chosen possible forks in the literary path. Like the hiker, we expect a clear trail map, well-defined waypoints, great scenery, and the strong, rewarding sense that it has all been worthwhile.
copyright ©Alex Forbes May 23, 2009
1 - Dr. Tyson has reportedly not published academic scientific papers since obtaining his doctorate. He had been awarded countless honors for his lectures and television work promoting public awareness of science. As far as favorite speakers, I could not choose between him and Dr. Filippenko. Each are extraordinarily effective and captivating.