06 January 2007

The No-Sh*t Principle

Writing is hard, and so people write badly. There are several ways that young writers (in particular) make writing difficult for ourselves: we tend not to read enough, we rarely pre-write, and almost no-one drafts and revises properly. For many of us—scientists, for example—writing seems secondary to our main task, whether that task is research or something else. Writing therefore becomes a chore, and we fail to allow it enough time and care.

This essay does not suggest that up-and-coming writers read more, pre-write more, or revise better; we already know all that, and we each must wrestle with those issues ourselves, forever. Here, I only consider my own minute-to-minute problems with how one sentence follows another. I usually see three main problems in my own writing:

  1. Lack of clarity, especially within sentences. Strunk & White offer excellent advice for writing clearly—I read The Elements of Style every year1, and it shames me to admit that I really do learn something each time (even if I still disagree with some of their suggestions and find many others completely unnecessary for anyone literate). I further propose three additional rules, particularly for scientists:

    The word this must be followed immediately by the noun that is modifies.

    When used to refer to a noun, the words that or which must be explicitly preceded as immediately as possible by the simplest possible noun phrase to which they refer.

    Adjectival gerunds (ending in -ing) must always explicitly modify nouns, not whole phrases.

The purpose of all three rules is the same: to leave no doubt in the reader's mind as what you are discussing. Far too frequently we write “This demonstrates . . . “ or “We walked together to buy the ring, proving that I loved her.” What demonstrates—the last thing you mentioned, or the events described in the last paragraph, or the entire preceding text? Does the ring prove that you love her, or does walking together prove it, or did you otherwise manage to prove your love while out shopping? Clear writing is unambiguous, so we must make the relationship between the words obvious.

  1. Lack of logical connection between sentences or paragraphs. I think that most writers have fewer difficulties here, if only because so many of us write very slowly or revise heavily for “flow.” I can't recommend any guidelines here, other than to urge you to read your text aloud. Where you naturally pause, check for punctuation. Where you do not pause, there should likely be no punctuation. As long as you use common sense, the pacing will seem natural, and the reader will never think, “Why did you say that thing, there?”

In all seriousness, I do not know many writers who have trouble with point two, above. Some of us may stumble over the odd comma or semicolon (see S&W), but in general I believe my friends and colleagues structure paragraphs and pages logically. Writers, particularly those of us who consider ourselves writers, pay a great deal of attention to “flow,” I think because we believe that attending to it helps us to develop our own voice. Our pride depends on smooth prose.

Too much attention to “flow” leads to another problem. Rather than simply state our case and back it up, we tend to get wrapped up in unnecessary phrases and verbal acrobatics. We end up repeating ourselves (for emphasis, naturally) or stating the obvious. I now present the third problem I find in my writing:

  1. Stretches of needless text that dare the reader to think, “Well, no sh*t.”

It is easy to see how excessive concern for “flow” leads to this sort of difficulty.2 To many of us, it seems incredibly boring to string a series of simple declarative sentences together—after all, a list of facts may constitute a plot, but it cannot be a story without style. Our vanity leads us to discard clarity in search of this phantom, style, and along the way we lose our readers, as well. From where, then, does this vanity come?

I propose that school created the problem, and that the internet aggravates it: we no longer write to communicate; instead, we write to fill space. When a student brags that she “bullsh*tted” her way through an essay exam, what does she mean? She wrote, and she duly filled space, but she actually communicated little information. In fact, she is really bragging that her style successfully hid an absence of content. Forums on the internet, like public journals and personal ads, give millions of prose stylists limitless opportunities to write whatever comes to mind . . . and nearly everyone realizes, once on stage, that they in fact have very little to say. Vanity, however, demands that something fill the space—and so something does.

The fear that unadorned writing will be boring is a genuine fear. My job requires writing, and I often try too hard to avoid bland prose, and I probably cause myself trouble here. To paraphrase Tolstoy, every good writer writes differently, but nearly all bad writing is the same: tangled, pretentious, and nonsensical. Too often, “style” and “flow” are code-words for a lack of ideas: pith is the best style. Frankfurt3 and Fish4 join Strunk and White in offering sound advice—if you first master clear writing, your style can emerge. Without clarity, you can have only admirers, not readers.

SAT tutors share obscure points of grammar and vocabulary. Writers share ideas.

1As suggested by Edward R. Tufte

2I apologize for spoiling my own punchline by setting off the word flow throughout this essay.

3Frankfurt, Harry. On Bullsh*t.

4Fish, Stanley. “Devoid of content.” New York Times, 2005.


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