March 2010 Archives
"Readers think you write concisely when you use only enough words to say what you mean." Williams page 85
I've been told a once or two, maybe closer to a hundred times, that I need to cut down on my wordiness. Several times teachers and professors have told me to stop describing the same idea with different words and instead focus on dissecting that idea on a deeper level and formulating new ideas from it. Even my mom said that I throw in too many useless words, I think bs was the actual term she used, just to meet a specified length requirement. And you know what? They were probably all right, to a certain degree.
Especially in academic work, wordiness can be very difficult to avoid. Most students fall into the length trap. They believe it would be easier narrow their topic down to a few ideas and then repeat them to death. Sometimes, this is unintentionally encouraged by professors who ask that students narrow their focus to just the intricate concepts of their topic. A skilled reader will recognize the redundancy in the writing and most will subsequently be turned off by it.
In journalism, wordiness is an absolute transgression. You simply cannot do it. Because the length requirements often fall short of a writer's want rather than exceed it, redundancy means your writing won't be published. I've learned to avoid it at all costs in my news writing, spending often too much time finding the perfect word to replace two or three words.
I only wish I did the same with my academic papers, it might result in less red ink.
"The general principle is to carry the reader from simplicity to complexity." Williams, page 69
Williams principle noted above
really shouldn't be all that fascinating. In fact, it's great philosophy to
take to just about any teaching or learning environment. When we first learn
anything, we start with the basics and gradually introduce ourselves to the
more complex concepts later on in the process. So then why is the concept so
difficult to grasp in our writing?
Williams principle noted above really shouldn't be all that fascinating. In fact, it's great philosophy to take to just about any teaching or learning environment. When we first learn anything, we start with the basics and gradually introduce ourselves to the more complex concepts later on in the process. So then why is the concept so difficult to grasp in our writing?
I think part of the reason people overlook this basic idea is because their writing is so much fuller with details and the like that they feel they need to put it all out there first and then explain it later. People often want to display how much they know in their writing without explaining to the reader what their actually writing about. For the experienced and highly educated mind this might not seem like a big deal but for the average Joe this won't work. People need to keep in mind that unless it's common knowledge it's probably going to need some well structure sentences to explain it.
This chapter was similar to several that preceded it in that it more or less reaffirmed something I already knew but didn't focus on enough. It's kind of funny because I always apply this principle to my academic work only on a grander scale. Every paragraph I write starts out with a simple introduction of the topic with the next several sentences building onto it until a comprehensive and logical conclusion wraps it all up. However, I doubt that I often micromanage my writing enough to employ the same philosophy to each individual sentence within the paragraph. Essentially, the paragraphs will contain the necessary buildup but the contents of that buildup can be muddied together because the sentences don't follow the same rule.
While all this focusing might appear too trivial and time consuming on the surface, it has legitimate value especially in situations where words must be carefully chosen. All of Williams' principles should be absorbed thus far with the cyclical reminder that your writing isn't meant solely for you but for others to read as well.
"My goal is to stop people from talking so much about the inherent nature of these media and start them talking more about the different ways we can use them. In particular I seek to celebrate the flexibility of writing as a medium, and to show that we need to develop more control over ourselves as we write so that we can manage our writing process more judiciously and flexibly." Peter Elbow, page 151
Although I didn't quite follow this goal throughout Elbow's essay, stating it at the conclusion and rereading the text really helped this point stick out for me. There are several different means of communication available to people today more than ever. Obviously, each individual will have their own preference on which means they would use to most often communicate. But there are those who stubbornly reserve their communicative expression to a single form, and it's these people who I believe Elbow is addressing.
Communication isn't a one trick pony like it was before the ancient Greeks first devised an alphabet over 2,500 years ago. Even in the several centuries that followed, some of the most effective and respected communicators were those who could express their message both orally and in writing. Today, many people see those forms as archaic and useless. They get transfixed in the belief of the new technologies swallowing up the old and becoming not just the new but also the only way. There are others who look back at the old forms with a sense of nostalgia and will retell stories of when they thought that was high tech, only to revert back to the newest forms and endlessly sing their praises.
The best communicators today are like those of Rome and Greece some 2,000 years ago. They can utilize all mediums of communication and spread their message to many, many more people. Isn't that what communication is all about anyway? Even if only half of the people your message reaches care about what you say, the other half that do will anoint you a great communicator who is a master at spreading his ideas across all borders and boundaries. Some of the best journalists and commentators that I look up to spread their message in several formats and do so almost seven days a week. Many will have a column or news story published during the week and host a weekday television and/or radio show. Some also post their reporting and commentary on renowned websites and also decorate their pages with webcast videos to appease even more viewers.
The bottom line is today's technologies provide a litany of ways for anyone in the field of communications to not only succeed but excel. You can dominate one part of the industry but be invisible in the others and therefore never achieve more than mediocrity. That's not to say that isn't okay to shine in one medium and be modestly successful in the others. But to really stand out, you need to take full advantage of all the avenues technology has provided and tirelessly work to outclass competitors in each field.
"If you do not see your main characters there in simple subjects, stated in a few short, concrete words, you have to look for them." Williams, page 43
Character and characters are very important in life. They're also pretty important to clearly identify in sentence structure. They aren't like deer or other game that many people enjoy hunting for. When the characters crucial to the purpose of the sentence are scattered randomly throughout a sentence, then the whole thing becomes opaque and unclear. People don't want to hunt for characters in sentences and don't enjoy those characters doing nothing active in a sentence.
Seeing as characters should most often be the central meaning of sentences, they need to fall in the subject so readers can clearly distinguish their critical importance. It's also not a bad idea to make that subject simple and clear. Don't hide it somewhere in the middle of a sentence to sound more academic. Most likely it will have the opposite affect and it's just a generally annoying thing to see.
When your characters are clearly distinguished, make them do something. Passive voice can become very redundant and monotonous. Too much of it indicates laziness or a general lack of effort from the writer. Can we 'is' or 'are' anything? NO! I can run, jump, play, read, write and any other litany of active verbs. Obviously writing differs significantly from the physicality of the active verbs actually doing something in real life, and there exist plenty of instances where linking and helping verbs are necessary. Avoiding their use altogether would actually damage your writing. But too many seem to have a sad reliance on them and that's terrible for your writing.
The characters are supposed to be reflective of reality. Their actions should be actions and as much as possible be written in an active voice. Make it simple and make it smart. Put your characters right out there and make them do something. You might find your writing will be doing something with that, too; improving.