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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Better Living Through Editing

I'm going to try to make Wednesday "Language Day" on Gimme Bliss. I'm a writer, and Wednesdays are the days I teach a fiction writing class, so I'm already thinking about how to make language more precise, more elegant, more straightforward.

I've taught a lot of university-level writing classes now, from English Composition 101 to Rhetoric to Fiction. What I've learned over the course of several years of analyzing and evaluating other people's writing is that there is an amazingly direct correlation between the clarity of a person's written language and the clarity of that person's thoughts. When I first began teaching, this came as a huge surprise to me. As someone who has always had a fairly easy time articulating what I mean, I never realized what a huge problem this was.

What I was happy to learn from my students was that clarity in writing (and therefore clarity in logic and thinking) could be taught. I will give you some tips to start clearing the fog of thinking that comes from foggy writing, which, I believe, will serve anyone on the path to finding their bliss. After all, if your thoughts are not clear to yourself, much less anybody else, what hope can you have of trusting yourself and your instincts when the time comes to take the leap and make a decision?

First, though, let me explain why it is I think these two things really are connected. Basically, we take for granted that words are abstract entities representing things. I mean, after all, they're just little black marks, and there's no real reason the word for a teapot isn't "balopta." Hell, it might be in some other language. The point is, our words are arbitrary signifiers, but that doesn't mean that they don't mean anything. On the contrary, the only way for you and I to talk about teapots is to have a word we agree means "teapot." We run into a problem, then, when people don't use words correctly, or when they use words that are so broad as to be difficult to interpret. Watch this clip of Miss South Carolina for an example of this that may shatter your faith in our education system. (Sample: "I believe that they should, uh, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, should help South Africa and should help Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future.")

If you're sitting across from someone at teatime (apparently I'm fancying a little British scene in my head today), and they say, "Pass the thingy," and there's a teapot and a creamer and a sugar dish, you have no idea what to pass, do you? So you ask for clarification. And they may say, "the white thingy," in which case you have to go back and forth or resort to pointing. Gestures of course are why we can get away with being so much less precise in speech than we can in writing, where there's no one there to explain what is trying to be expressed.

Obviously, this method is not only terribly inefficient, but frustrating, not only to the person trying to figure out what you mean, but really ultimately to you, too. If only you could get what you want! If only that person who wants to help you could understand what you want! And so it would be helpful to you too, to be as specific and precise as possible, and say, "Pass the teapot."

Now of course this is a somewhat exaggerated example, and an overly simplistic one. But I think you see the point. Our words, especially our written words, and especially when we are communicating with someone we can't see face-to-face, help us to express what we want and then get what we want. That can be a physical thing, like the teapot, or it can be an abstract thing.

Instead of saying, "I want my life to improve in all aspects"--much too broad and overwhelming!--think of specific things in your life that you'd like to change. Get almost absurdly specific. So, "I'd like to have at least 30 minutes of time to read a novel, three times a week." Or instead of, "I'd like to fall in love," try, "I'd like to meet someone who is also interested in French New Wave cinema." Then all you have to do is find out when your local film society is showing a Truffaut film, and show up. It's a given that the people there will be interested, and some of them will be single, so voila! Strike up a conversation with someone and whether you fall in love or not, at least you are having fun, exploring your own interests and meeting people you might like to know.

The more specific you get with your language, the more you will be able to express--to yourself as well as to others--what it is you mean, what it is you want, and who it is you are.

I'll return to this topic of language again, but for now I'll leave you with a list of tips for writing and thinking more clearly:
  1. Get specific. See above, but really, get so specific it's almost laughable. Leave no room for doubt.
  2. Avoid cliches and phrases you've heard before. If it sounds familiar to you, or you pluck it out of the air with such ease that you're not even sure where it came from, reevaluate it. Is this what you want to say, or is this what you've heard other people say?
  3. When reading, test sentences for logic. Be very rigorous. Does that e-mail your boss sent really say something, or does it just seem to say something? Consider poor Miss South Carolina's phrase: "...so we will be able to build up our future." It kind of sounds like it could mean something, but does it really? How do you "build up" the future? Testing other people's language for bad logic is a good way to prevent doing the same thing in your own writing.
  4. Be direct. When writing, think of how you would say something out loud, and base the way you write on how you speak. Obviously you don't always want to be very informal, but a lot of times people will try to sound more educated or eloquent or formal when they're writing, and end up just sounding silly. If you'd say, "Please call me as soon as you can," don't write, "When it is at your convenience, calling to update me on the status would be most appreciated." Write instead, "Please call with an update at your convenience."
  5. Read what you've written out loud. This applies to an important e-mail to your boss or to a list of goals you've written for yourself. If it sounds awkward or vague out loud, it will come across that way to others and be of no help to you as you try to take the next step.

I promise that if you take care of your words, your words will take care of you.

1 comment:

Jason Becker said...

Hey, I know someone interested in "balopta."