Other gubbins

All sentences great and not so great

hands pushing keyboardI have shovelled something like half a million words into cyberspace since I started blogging three years ago. Some of those words were arranged in ways that were pleasing, to me at least. Some of them were arranged in ways that might best be described as decidedly clunky. What makes the difference largely eludes me. But then, when it comes to writing, I’m no kind of craftsman. It’s all a bit more agricultural.

When I started blogging I had been writing as a social scientist for more than twenty years. Social scientists have been responsible for some of the most impenetrable texts ever offered up for human consumption. Their audience, while no doubt appreciative, can be rather select. Acquiring the capacity for obscurity is, it would appear, a core part of socialization into some disciplinary communities. Yet that wasn’t so much the case for me. Writing for policy and practice audiences alongside academics has, I hope, inoculated me against some of the more virulent strains of obscurantism.

But I am not immune. I remember, many years ago, an extended discussion with a policy customer on the use of the word “concatenation” in a report I’d written. It seemed to me it was precisely the right word. But it was considered far too obscure for a broad readership. Only the other day I had to justify the use of “quotidian” in a paper I was writing because, even though it was exactly the right word for the intended meaning, it was felt it wouldn’t be understood by the readers.

But I would draw a distinction between making full use of the vocabulary that has been handed down to us and writing in an unnecessarily obscure or ornate style. I would say the same about rhetorical forms, some of which entail a degree of syntactic sophistication. If we keep on simplifying and paring back and back then our ability to communicate and comprehend complex ideas will eventually be impaired.

Yet, I am conscious that since I started blogging the way I write has changed. It has been stripped down. It’s become more direct. It’s less convoluted and multisyllabic.

I wouldn’t – couldn’t – have written that last paragraph three years ago.

I guess my blogposts may still seem unnecessarily long-winded and “academic” to those who don’t have the pleasure of engaging with the learned journals and monographs of the academic literature. You’ll have to trust me when I say that much of the terrain in that neck of the words is a lot harder going.

Good writing can, of course, be found in academia. But it is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for progress or promotion. It is simply an unexpected bonus when you stumble across it.

I was thinking about the craft of writing for a couple of reasons.

First, this week Elmore Leonard died. I’ve read quite a few of his books. He is renowned for his handling of snappy dialogue, which doesn’t, in all honesty, have much of a crossover into writing about social science. But there is something about his economical style that gives the text a particular pace and forward momentum. Anyone who writes can draw something valuable from it.

How to writeSecond, I’ve just finished reading Stanley Fish’s short book How to write a sentence and how to read one. Fish is a lover of good sentences. Many books on writing assume you know what a sentence is and focus on parts of speech, the first part of Fish’s book looks instead at the form and purpose of a sentence. He takes apart sentences by the likes of Swift, Austen, Melville and Milton to examine how they work and how they achieve their effects. He examines different styles of writing – the subordinating style of Henry James, the additive style of Salinger, the satiric style of Wilde – before considering some first and last lines to unpack quite why they are so powerful.

The book takes a rather more theological turn towards the end, when Fish reflects upon eternity and finitude – not simply of sentences, but mortality. But even if theological reflection isn’t your particular thing, there is plenty of thought-provoking observations about the craft of writing to take away from the book.

And, to bring the two together, this week Deadspin published every first line Leonard wrote. It is well worth reflecting on how a master goes about his work. Some of the lines are absolutely cracking. You urgently want to pick up the book and find out where it goes next. Even if you’ve already read it!


Image: © peshkova – Fotolia.com

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