It’s rather a coincidence that the Nobel Prize for Literature is announced the very day I wanted to complete a post about the question which has been exercising me these last few days - namely what makes for good writing.
I have been editing about 20 of the pieces I have written and put on the old website in the past 5 years - and discovered a short paper I had done for some students (at the Central Asian University in Bishkek) on how to write a paper.
Of course, that’s not quite the same thing as writing a novel! But some of the same questions about standards and power seem to apply. What exactly are the qualifications of the panel for deciding who will gain this prestigious (and generous) award? And what precise criteria do they use? I’m generally fairly bewildered by the awards – although I’m not a great fan of novels. But I do like quality writing and have to say that I have read only 3 of the Nobel prize-winners of the last 10 years – Pamuk, Vargas Llosa and Coetze. Few of the other 7 seem all that deserving…..
Anyway, for the past week, I have been doing three things
· Writing a 1-2 page “blurb” for the 15 Papers or Essays (which are on average 60 pages long)
· Writing a slightly longer intro to the 8 E-books which will be on the new website in a week or so
· Re-formatting all of the material
This has involved recollecting the circumstances which brought this writing into being – and reflecting on my writing style and structure. So I’m now hooked on a major rewrite of the paper on writing reports – which is directed at officials and students facing a stroppy boss or supervisor and interested in the process of creation. Normally I sit with the laptop and let the keys do the thinking – as the phrases and sentences appear on the screen, I question them and am led into some unexpected but fruitful fields. Just as happens when I’m doing a presentation to a group and ask them initially to give me some questions…… In both cases, ideas appear which I hadn't previously thought of...
But this time, I operated even more creatively…some months ago I had bought a very large artist’s sketchpad which can stand on the floor like an easel. With a fine felt pen I just scribble phrases in large script and then tear the page off and leave on the floor like a post-it note….
Alternating between this and the laptop has proved to be quite effective….
By a further coincidence, I was reminded of Steven Pinker’s recently published book - The Sense of Style – the thinking person’s guide to good writing - which asks -
Why is so much writing so bad? Why is it so hard to understand a government form, or an academic article or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?
The most popular explanation is that opaque prose is a deliberate choice. Bureaucrats insist on gibberish to cover their anatomy. Plaid-clad tech writers get their revenge on the jocks who kicked sand in their faces and the girls who turned them down for dates. Pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook. But the bamboozlement theory makes it too easy to demonize other people while letting ourselves off the hook. In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon's Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
The kind of stupidity I have in mind has nothing to do with ignorance or low IQ; in fact, it's often the brightest and best informed who suffer the most from it.
I once attended a lecture on biology addressed to a large general audience at a conference on technology, entertainment and design. The lecture was also being filmed for distribution over the Internet to millions of other laypeople. The speaker was an eminent biologist who had been invited to explain his recent breakthrough in the structure of DNA. He launched into a jargon-packed technical presentation that was geared to his fellow molecular biologists, and it was immediately apparent to everyone in the room that none of them understood a word and he was wasting their time. Apparent to everyone, that is, except the eminent biologist. When the host interrupted and asked him to explain the work more clearly, he seemed genuinely surprised and not a little annoyed. This is the kind of stupidity I am talking about.
The “curse of knowledge” is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows—that they haven't mastered the argot of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail…….This is good stuff and what follows echoes exactly what my own draft said all these years ago -
How can we lift the curse of knowledge? The traditional advice—always remember the reader over your shoulder—is not as effective as you might think. None of us has the power to see everyone else's private thoughts, so just trying harder to put yourself in someone else's shoes doesn't make you much more accurate in figuring out what that person knows. But it's a start. So for what it's worth: Hey, I'm talking to you. Your readers know a lot less about your subject than you think, and unless you keep track of what you know that they don't, you are guaranteed to confuse them.
A better way to exorcise the curse of knowledge is to close the loop, as the engineers say, and get a feedback signal from the world of readers—that is, show a draft to some people who are similar to your intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us. Only when we ask those people do we discover that what's obvious to us isn't obvious to them.
The other way to escape the curse of knowledge is to show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar. If you are like me you will find yourself thinking, "What did I mean by that?" or "How does this follow?" or, all too often, "Who wrote this crap?" The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader. Advice on writing is not so much advice on how to write as on how to revise.
Steven Pinker is an eminent psychologist and has a good interview on the book in the current Slate Magazine.
My only quibble is with his title – there are a lot of style books out there but I don’t think that’s what he’s actually talking about. He seems rather to be addressing the more crucial issue of how we structure our thinking and present it so clearly that the reader or listener understands and is actually motivated to do something with the insights…..
Once we stop thinking about the words we use, what exactly they mean and whether they fit our purpose, the words and metaphors (and the interests behind them) take over and reduce our powers of critical thinking. One of the best essays on this topic is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English language” Written in 1947, it exposes the way certain clichés and rhetoric are calculated to kill thinking – for example how the use of the passive tense undermines the notion that it is people who take decisions and should be held accountable for them.
Fifty years before Orwell, Ambrose Bierce was another (American) journalist whose pithy and tough definitions of everyday words, in his newspaper column, attracted sufficient attention to justify a book “The Devil’s Dictionary” whose fame continues unto this day. A dentist, for example, he defined as “a magician who puts metal into your mouth and pulls coins out of your pocket”. A robust scepticism about both business and politics infused his work – bit it did not amount to a coherent statement about power.
My own Just Words - a glossary and bibliography for the fight against the pretensions and perversities of power looks at more than 100 words and phrases used by officials, politicians, consultants and academics in the course of government reform which have this effect and offers some definitions which at least will get us thinking more critically about our vocabulary – if not actually taking political actions.
And the Plain English website is the other source I would recommend. It contains their short but very useful manual; a list of alternative words; and lists of all the organisations which have received their awards.