Thursday, September 30, 2010

Brown Noise in Written Language, Part 2

Here is some more thinking on the subject of brown noise in written language, stimulated by Joel Garry’s comment to my prior post.

My point is not an appeal for more creative writing in the let’s-use-lots-of-adverbs sense. It’s an appeal for clarity of expression. More fundamentally, it is an appeal for having an idea to express in the first place. If you have an actual idea and express it in a useful way, then maybe you've created something that is not spam (even if it happens to be a mass mailing), because it yields some value to your audience.

My point is about being creative only to the extent that if you haven’t created an interesting thought to convey by the time you’ve written something, then you don’t deserve—and you’re not going to get—my attention. (Except you might get me to criticize your writing in my blog.)

What Lanham calls “the Official Style” is a tool for solving two specific problems: There’s (1) “I have no clear thought to express, yet I'm required to write something today.” And (2) “I have a thought I'd like to express, but I'm afraid that if I just come out and say it, I'll get in trouble.” Problem #1 happens, for example, to school children who are required to write when they really don’t have anything in mind to be passionate about. Problem #2 happens to millions who live out the Emperor’s New Clothes every day of their lives. They don’t “get” what their mission is or why it’s important, so when they’re required to write, they encrypt their material to hide from their audience that they don’t get it. The result includes spam, mission statements, and 98% of the PowerPoint presentations you’ll ever see in your life.

I’m always more successful when I orient my thoughts in the direction of gratitude, so a better Part 1 post from me would have been structured as:
  1. Wow, look at this horrible, horrible sentence. I am so lucky I don't have to live and work in an environment where this kind of expression (and by implication, this kind of thinking) is deemed acceptable.
  2. I highly recommend Lanham's Revising Prose. It is brilliant. It helps you fix this kind of writing, and—more importantly—the kind of thinking that leads to it.
  3. I’m grateful for the work of people like Lanham, Fried, Heinemeier-Hansson, and many others, who help us understand and appreciate clear thinking and courageous writing.
Writing is not just output. Writing is an iterative process—along with thinking, experimenting, testing—that creates new thought. If you try to use the waterfall approach when you write—“Step 1: Do all your thinking; Step 2: Do all your writing”—then you’ll miss the whole point of how writing clarifies and creates new thought. That is why learning how to revise prose is so important. It’s not just about how to make writing better. As Lanham illustrates in dozens of examples throughout his book, revising prose forces improvement in the writer’s thinking, which enriches the writer’s life even more than the writing, however tremendous, will enrich the reader.

4 comments:

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Joel Garry said...

Huh, I'm a label on Cary's blog! :-)

That last paragraph you wrote, oh man, I've tried to get that through to both my kids, it makes me want to run out and buy the book. They both ace everything, but struggle with English, expecting to come out with perfect prose first time every time. I had the same problem until I discovered usenet and stopped caring so much - and writing the same thoughts over and over improved my writing!

word: desse Dèssè is a town in the Solenzo Department of Banwa Province in western Burkina Faso.

Jean said...

On your recommendation I bought 'Revising Prose'. I struggle with writing(would much rather build a database) and thought it would be helpful. I didn't expect it to be laugh-out-loud funny! Or maybe I just have a warped sense of humor. Thanks for suggesting 'Revising Prose'.

Cary Millsap said...

Jean, it is my pleasure.