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.

Let's take it easy first

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"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?

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.

"Sentences are cohesive when the last few words of one set up information that appears in the first few words of the next. That gives us our experience of flow." Joseph Williams, page 58

Transitions are arguably the most important part of any piece of writing, long or short. I think it's especially important in journalism, where your space is limited and there's restrictions on space. In order to better utilize that space, a good writer will transition seamlessly from one sentence to the next and avoid having to introduce each point at the beginning of every new sentence. Every well constructed transition can save as many as five words, and over the course of a 500 word article, that can amount to an additional three to five sentences of valuable information that you might not have otherwise been able to include. 
In addition to saving space, transitions help the reader smoothly scan through your writing. When writing becomes too dense and choppy, it irritates readers who will decide that your writing is just a waste of their time. Readers are most happy when they can absorb a lot of information quickly and if your writing has good flow and cohesiveness, this comes both easily and naturally. It's a fast paced world and your writing needs to keep up with that making good flow all the more important. 
One final point about good flow is that it can actually force your audience to continue reading your piece because no good spot can be found to stop until the end. By setting up every upcoming sentence at the conclusion of the previous one, the reader subconsciously forces him or herself into continuing on to the next point to reach some finality. The good writer forces readers to do this over and over again until the end of the story. It can be very difficult, but mastering transition techniques can greatly benefit your writing.

The past is as we see it

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"Antiquity can be viewed only through the lens of modernity. The image which passes through the lens in order to reach our own sensibilities is one that has been manipulated by our choice of focus and lighting." Eric Havelock, page 117

This was probably one of my favorite quotes from Havelock's entire book. I actually agree with it for the most part, a rarity in my experience. The pesky thing about history, especially ancient history, is that we can't really recreate it or get a good observation on it. Unless it was written down as a first hand account, it's really open to debate.
What's funny about the debate, however, is that because nobody has any real substantial evidence, they're all basically just blowing wind out of their hind ends. Sure there are always going to be some unchanging facts that won't be disputed. Unfortunately, those are few and far between. A person's geography and nationality can have an enormous influence on how they view history. Any intelligent individual can compile enough historical facts together and twist them into their own truth about history. And they will honestly what they present, till death do they part.
Essentially, this shows the greatest lesson of why the development and expansion of written communication was so important then. Anything written down can eliminate the twisted views of people wanting to shape history in their own perspective. If there's hard evidence, any opinions will fall away having been rendered utterly useless. That's also why it's still very important to write things down today, or at least to generate hard copies. We need solid evidence to tell our story on for the countless generations to come. We don't want them telling us what we did any more than previous generations would have wanted us to do to them. We have the opportunity that they did not. Carpe diem, amigos.
"The average reader is not equipped to detect many kinds of document falsification, and a lot of text is still accepted on trust...We have learned to trust writing that leaves a paper trail. Things are not so black and white in the world of digital text." Dennis Baron, page 48

Sure that picture of Marilyn Monroe getting cozy beside Abraham Lincoln is humorous and not all that uncommon. When done with the right intent, that kind of photoshopping is both entertaining and generally harmless. However, Baron's essay points to a much deeper and much more serious issue at play. Granted, his piece is ancient by today's digital standards and a lot of work has been done to alleviate and minimize the issue. But there's still a reason why professors everywhere crucify their students for citing Wikipedia.
Falsification of documents in the digital world is a perfect example of how new technologies always come with nearly as many complexities as they do simplicities. Before digital communication, trusting an author and his or her sources was commonplace. Fact checking could be done with a few hard documents and if the author wasn't truthful, it could be detected fairly easily. 
Today, that's much more difficult. There's an enormous amount of opinion floating around that's too often being passed on as fact. Once this happens, fact checkers need to work doubly hard to prove it to be an opinion. This kind of opinion spreading grows exponentially along with the digital medium in which it resides. It affects just about everyone, but writers and reporters suffer more than most.
Proving the legitimacy of one's work is now a tedious and mind-numbing chore. Establishing credibility is very difficult now and it can be stripped away so quickly today. The motivation to pass on facts to an audience has dwindled to almost nothing. We need to be able to trust the information we obtain and also the people from whom we obtain it. Deciphering opinion from fact needs to be stressed much more throughout individuals' educational development. Otherwise, we'll find ourselves at the base of a mountain of useless information, with only the important real facts sitting atop the summit. And that mountain will make Mt. Everest look like a mole hill.
Remember the old saying...opinions are like assholes, everybody's got one.

"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. 

Reflecting...
Here's a lovely collection, a look back if you will, on some of my finest responses to the world of written communication. They probably suck but I don't really care.

The first one I've included because I think it's the most relevant to today and it's also my personal favorite. It relates the plight of newspapers in today's changing communication world to the change from oral to written communication in the time of Plato and Socrates.

This next one I selected because it involves something we all use all the time. It was interesting to examine just how much people overuse PowerPoint.

And this final selection I chose because I just love irony and this passage was full of it. It baffled me, yet at the same time I completely understood it. There aren't many things in the world that I can say that about.

Engaging others in Xenoblogging (not sure about that word)

Below are a few entries other classmates posted that caught my attention more than others. For these I left my own two cents and hopefully didn't agitate the authors too much.


What is listed below is a collection of all my blog pieces from the past unit. Enjoy!

"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.