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.