"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Simplicity
November 27, 2008

Blogging, Writing And Statistically Analysing Literary Styles

Writing, Creativity, SEO, Editing, Populism

I actually started writing this piece in October of last year. So, I suppose the title should be changed to “Blogging, Writing and Massively Procrastinating.” Still, this year has been a milestone in the populism versus having something interesting to say debate, so it’s worth revisiting the topic of how we write, who we write for, and what we expect from those who consume our written output.

In the current edition of New York Magazine, Malcolm Gladwell questions whether the explosion of blogging is making us better writers. Blogging certainly affords us the opportunity to write expansively, but without the constraint of editors (and for many of us without much in the way of commentary) does it make us better writers? I’d like to think it has made me a better writer – but, I’m not always sure.

So, it was interesting to revisit the link from Seth Godin over to Steven Berlin Johnson’s research on readability. Johnson’s basic thesis is that readability (and by implication commercial viability) is contingent on shorter sentences and infrequent use of complex (i.e., more than three syllable) words. Six writers were inlcuded in the sample; four commercially succesful populists Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker, Seth Godin, Christopher Hitchens and two postmodern/postsutructuralist heavyweights, Michel Foucault and Frederic Jameson.

Have you stopped laughing yet? OK, then let’s continue.

Amazingly (fine, I’ll drop the sarcasm now), the study reveals that the populists use shorter sentences and fewer complex words (remember the definition – three or more syllables). I’ve never made it a goal to become a populist and, to be blunt, I’ve found most of the arguments in favour of populism surreptitious and execrable. Sometimes, the desire to make language less complicated strips ideas of their necessary complexity. Far too often, those who invoke populist approaches to language don’t have the well being of the populace as a whole in their heart.

Our world is not simple, but there is a craft in describing our word in the simplest language possible. Looking back on this chart, it is interesting to consider Gladwell’s own writing over the last year in The New Yorker (now appearing in a new book). In some ways, his style has not changed, but his content has grown more complex and less frivolous. Perhaps Gladwell is benchmark in this debate, since his whole oeuvre is built on taking complex ideas (research, theories, philosophies) and repackaging them in readable ways. Alain de Botton is another writer who seems to do this well.

Does any of this really matter? Maybe, maybe not. José Saramago has built a fine literary career writing monumental sentences that stretch on for line after line. Foucault and Jameson may have written long sentences of tortured prose. But, they also played a crucial role in defining the intellectual climate of the 20th century! Gladwell might be a good entry point into sociology and psychology, but anyone wanting to really understand those subjects will need to read further (and by extension dive into longer sentences and bigger words).

Perhaps the most telling insight from Johnson’s bit of research is the consistency of each writer’s style. From one book to another each author’s sentence lengths were more alike than they were different. Of course, there was be variation from one line to another. But a good writer will have a flow and cadence to their words, just like a good speaker. Sentences are the structure for that, like the phrases and rhythms that make up a melody.

Sentences are the packages we wrap our ideas into, not devices to lure readers in. What you have to say is the most important thing. Assuming, of course, that you have something worthwhile to say. Often the most malodorous trait of populists isn’t so much the ideas the share, as the relentless focus on manipulating the platform through which they speak. Be it a news column, pulpit, radio microphone, or TV camera, their goal, above all else, is attention and power.

If then populism may well be the best route forward. If not, then cultivate your own style, appropriate to your own ideas and the to the audience you share your life with.

Responses
DAVID COLLEDGE 14 years ago

Good afternoon, Fernando,

I couldn´t agree more with you regarding the baleful effects of populism on writing; I think that has always been the case and, as you will be aware, European history in the 20th century can point to several examples of the bloodless and impoverished writing styles required by people peddling their bloodless (bloody) and impoverished ideas.

I am a refugee from 1980s Britain, and have lived in Chile for the past 20 years, mainly on account of needing breathing space (and another language in which to think); oddly enough, however, I have earned my living during this time writing technical insurance reports, albeit in English, on damaged cargo and on ships with problems for Chinese underwriters: that curious experience has taught me a good deal about writing – apart from my own personal interests ( e.g. since you mention him, I have been a relatively enthusiastic reader of Jameson since the 1970s-my university era- when he published “Marxism and Form”). I find that most blogs I read are carelessly written and certainly betray a lack of sensible editing; this state of affairs is, and more seriously, true of the publishing world and also within the area of professional translation at the highest levels. Apparently, so I am told, this is due to lack of money; the present “global” financial fiasco is a direct reflection of what I fled from in Britain, and whatever other problems may exist in this faraway neck of the woods, people have a healthy respect for the virtue of common-or-garden financial caution, albeit for well established historical reasons. That will, no doubt, change… alas.

Well, I hope to follow your blog in future and, in return, invite you to peruse my self-regarding, solipsistic blog called CHILIANA#1 at Google… Yours sincerely, DAVID COLLEDGE

Matt Stone 14 years ago

Edward de Bono’s take on this is that we should aim for simplicity without being simplistic. That is, you should aim to get your ideas across as consisely as possible without compromising the content. I don’t find that a bad rule of thumb. Some complexity is necessary, some is unnecessary, the craft I think is knowing the difference and writing accordingly.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

David – thank you for your comments and I look forward to reading your blog. I agree that many blogs are poorly edited. That reflects our electronic culture where writing has been divorced from drafting and revision, not just with regard to blogs, but also email, chat, forums and “social networking.”

What I find more unforgivable is the state of professional writing, especially journalism. My educational background did not afford many opportunities to become a better writer, but I do owe a debt to the good journalists I read, especially in my teens and early twenties. They provided a template and an inspiration.

Today, there are so many errors, not just of style, but of substance that journalism really can’t teach us how to better writers except in the rarest of cases. That’s why I try to promote good writing when I find it. A dedicated writer deserves to be cherished and collectively we need to remind those finance print journals that there still exists a market for serious writing and thought.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Matt – De Bono is a fascinating example in this regard. I don’t believe one can emulate his pithiness without a lot of thought and work. This comes back to the issue of revision and editing, working with the material to find a good form and style – not just regurgitating it in a partially digested form.

It’s easier to be clear and concise when we really understand our subject matter and have some level of mastery over it. The troubling thing about the populists I’ve known in religious circles is that they don’t really have a vision of mastery over their subject, nor do they encourage others to master it. It’s the mix of populism and anti-intellectualism that is really pernicious.

The really breathtaking thinkers are the ones who can communicate with the right mix of simplicity and complexity while also displaying, but not necessarily parading, their intellectual accomplishments.

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