Monday, January 31, 2011

The art of good writing

The Inky Fool points to an article that exactly captures the quality that attracts me to literature. I can't and won't summarize it, so just go read it yourself: The art of good writing by Adam Haslett.

Seriously, go read it. Right now.

Every English essay I ever wrote -- and also the essays on opera, and Vietnamese culture, and maybe even one history paper -- was about how "the form and rhythm of sentences communicates as much meaning as their factual content, whether we’re conscious of it or not." And of course the aim of such studies is to become conscious of these various interwoven levels of meaning.

I wish I could write with this level of control. "That ability – to graft theme into syntax – is what makes great writing a pleasure to listen to." But I am no great writer. My field does not foster this careful wordcraft, this intricate interplay between meaning and message. More value is placed on naked ideas than on the words that clothe them; indeed, some value is placed on obscure, overly technical, abstruse, recondite, difficult writing.*

As both Forsyth and Haslett point out, we inhabitants of the internet live in a constant barrage of writing and reading. "This is the age of the word." I have yet to observe a tweet that is constructed with such verbal artistry; emails and blog posts seem to me to be written for brevity and "declarative masculine hardness." I worry. What I read influences how I write and speak and think, and Haslett describes my fear: "minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem."

I leave you with this quote. I love David Foster Wallace's writing, and Haslett's analysis highlights exactly why I find it so engrossing and effective.
Take the first sentence of David Foster Wallace’s story, “The Depressed Person”: “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.” By mixing heightened feeling and unrelenting repetition (“pain”, “pain”, “pain”) with a Latinate, clinically declarative voice (“component”, “contributing factor”), Wallace delivers his readers right where he wants them: inside the hellish disconnect between psychic pain and the modern means of describing it. The rhythm of the sentence is perfectly matched to its positive content. Indeed, from a writer’s point of view the two aren’t separate. If we could separate meaning from sound, we’d read plot summaries rather than novels.
Let's all read more novels.

This post's theme word is rhopalic, "having each successive word longer by one letter or syllable." I do not know about making awkward rhopalic sentences (rhetorical machination! oooooooooooh!).
This post written like H. P. Lovecraft.

*Sorry, I don't get to use "abstruse" and "recondite" often. I get excited when a chance arises. My other idea for this sentence involved the phrase "pissing contest" and was generally at the wrong level of diction.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bad writing (about fitness)

I've been reading a lot of good writing recently, and thinking about what makes it good. I'd like to figure out some lessons and then learn them, to become a better writer myself.

Here, instead, is an anti-lesson, accompanied with a motivating example. (Please forgive my own bad writing; it is late, I am tired, and I have the lingering taste of bad writing in my left brain.)

Good writing shows, it doesn't tell. Numbered lists, foolish quotation marks, and other rhetorical crutches suffuse bad writing, padding it out, easing your mind over the harsh unpleasantness of badly assembled words expressing barely-coherent thoughts.

I just read the article "Everything you know about fitness is a lie" by Daniel Duane. (It's available here, but you shouldn't read it.) The title lured me, and after the first page I, compulsive reader, could not stop. I had to see how far the vapid, vaguely first-person quest could stretch. (Was this guy paid by the word?)

The title was acurate, insofar as Mr. Duane reports that everything I "know" is a lie. Let's start there: there is an assumption of a standard reader with some standard knowledge. I am not a standard reader of Men's Journal. (I think.) Men, even those who read a journal so slimy that merely reading its text on a webpage makes me want to dispose of it in the back corner of a doctor's waiting room and wash my hands thoroughly, do not deserve to be subjected to this level of verbal excrescence.

The standard Men's Journal reader is apparently too slow to understand his own standard knowledge. Throughout the article, Mr. Duane offers reminder of workout-related "facts" that we "know" or "believe." Then he informs us they are false. The tone of the article includes those sarcastic quotes all over the place. Consider the very first paragraph:
I hate the gym. At least, I hate “the gym” as imagined by...
Those quotes serve only to express disdain, and to them I say: I hated this article. At least, I hated this "article" as written by Mr. Duane.
The point of the article, of course, is to debunk "everything I know," mostly by following the author in the riveting tale of his personal journey and life-changing discovery of an amazing, back-to-basics, revolutionary, ancient and time-honored, [buzzword], [buzzword], reviled-by-medical-science-but-actually-SO-good-for-you new workout. Spoiler alert: he likes it.

Even as he denigrates workout systems W, X, and Y for making us obedient, profitable, unfit sheep, Mr. Duane is recruiting us to his new workout system Z. He doesn't address why Z is better than W, X and Y. He just evaluates W, X, and Y in terms of Z. Of course Z is better at achieving Z's objectives, but I bet it sucks at X's objectives.

This is self-unaware writing of the worst sort. Mr. Duane uses the same buzzwords, the same level of excitement and engagement that he mocked in the context of W, X, and Y, to express his total commitment to Z. I suppose it makes sense: if we readers were stupid enough to believe in the workouts he belittles, based on nothing but the recommendations of exercise experts, then we surely will be stupid enough to believe in the workout he expounds based on the recommendations of exercise experts. Again.

It's cheap, it's shallow, and it's a lame marketing tool. I suppose that maybe it earned this guy some money and prestige as a fitness writer. It also gave him an opportunity to publicly brag about the girth of his thigh muscles.


I'll keep arranging my thoughts and words on good writing. What are your thoughts? And words? Have you found any good ones lately? What have you been reading? Can you find an article worse than this one? I'm sure it exists; ask, and the vast internet shall supply.

This post's theme word is hagiography, "an uncritical biography, treating its subject with undue reverence," or "a biography of a saint." Mr. Duane's article is a heinous hagiography of Kevin Brown and Rob Shaul.
This post written like H. P. Lovecraft.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Data management recommendation?

I have a bunch of data.
I made it out of clay.
And when it's dry and labelled,
I'll put it in a dossier.

I have some thousand or so data points, and I am looking for a program to organize them so that:
  • it is easy to cut and slice them and get nice graphs
  • it is easy to sort them on many dimensions
  • it is easy to enter more data points
This project started quite small, and so I felt ok simply using an openoffice spreadsheet. There is now enough data that openoffice (and Excel) has trouble with the size of the file.

Do you have a recommended/preferred method for managing data?

This post's theme word is scienter, "deliberately" or "knowingly." It's an adverb: he waggled his eyebrows scienter.
This post written like Isaac Asimov.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ice curtain

A curtain of icicles has slowly descended over the window across the alley from mine.
Cars drive through the alley below, with no regard to the massive property damage that may fall onto them from the sky anytime.
Look at that texture! I attended a seminar with some physicists who study icicle formation, and it's cool in every sense.

This post's theme word is guyot, "underwater mountain." Is the underside of an iceeberg an upside-down ice guyot?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hippo in a wok

This sneaky Ikea hippo has hitched his way down from the Child Distraction Section into the Cookery! Now he's just waiting for someone to pick up a wok...
This post's theme word is paratenic, an adjective that describes an intermediate host which is not needed for the development of the parasite, but nonetheless serves to maintain the life cycle of the parasite. That poor paratenic hippo!