12 December 2013

Three Writing Styles

This post explores how to help students use writing to develop intellectually. Writing forces articulation and clarification, but what is not always explained is just how students (or any writers) might achieve those loose goals. Writing is beneficial because it gives traction to thought-experiments, but this may be impeded if (student) writers frame their text with the 'wrong' considerations.

1. Styles

First, a word about 'styles'. I recognised in an earlier post that 'style', 'voice', 'tone', and other aspirational textual attributes are difficult to define. These words are often used with no concrete thought about what they refer to.

I use 'style' in this post to denote, perhaps, frames of mind that may produce interesting results--the equivalent, I suppose, of wearing tinted or polarising lenses when painting to alter the colours and shapes that would otherwise be applied to the canvas. The reader can decide whether I have used 'style' satisfactorily.

2. Posthumous Writing

The idea is from a Christopher Hitchens' interview, in which he discusses Hitch-22: A Memoir. The idea is to disregard critics, to pretend publication will occur only after death, if ever. This allows intellectual and creative freedom because there is no need to fear criticism for mistakes or persecution for ideas.

It is liberating to write in notebooks that will never be shared. Their content need not be intended for posthumous publication, but the basic idea is the same: without fearing what others might say about early drafts, there is massive freedom to experiment with fun- or tenuous-synthesis between ideas that are inappropriate in more serious arenas.

3. For Public Eyes

'Public eyes' is preferable to 'publication', here, because there are many opportunities to write for an audience without the potentially-inhibitive demand for rigour--though rigmarole may summarise the procedure better--or restrictions in, say, edited publications. There are benefits to public writing but they extend in an alternative direction to the posthumous lens.

To write for a public audience, one must consider others' comprehension. This encourages a search for clarity--which even the best authors acknowledge is a difficult enterprise. Searching for an idea's clearest expression can be arduous. It can also be fun. But it requires patience.

After finishing a draft and before its public release, several processes are helpful:
  1. Re-write sentences that obscure sentences' points. This ensure's clarity because re-writing enables one to qualify ideas or frame them more accurately, or both.
  2. Read the last sentence on its own: it may not sound as memorable as it did when you wrote it. If so, try to re-write something pithier. Or move that sentence or paragraph to earlier in the essay and consider if a point in another paragraph offers a better ending.
    1. The last sentence forges your final impression with the reader.
    2. The last sentence concludes your argument or idea. So, you may use it to help gauge whether
      1. the text leads to that conclusion;
      2. and whether what you began to write about is what you actually wrote about.
      You may then consider if any disparity is due to uncertainty, changed opinion, or something else, which knowledge you can use to re-write (partially or wholly) to ensure coherence between your initial and final purposes.
  3. When writing for public eyes, you will probably want to avoid simple mistakes. Some mistakes are difficult to find when proof reading. For example confusing the homonyms, 'witch' and 'which', may not be an obvious error and a digital spell-check may ignore it. Nevertheless, to practice finding this confusion and similar mistakes will make writing easier next time.
The pressure for accuracy when writing for public eyes may force one into habitually improving one's prose.

4. Writing 'Under Erasure'

The idea here is to question everything one writes--words, ideas, clich├ęs--and remedy everything that appears to be erroneous. Writing and thinking 'under erasure' may produce fastidious prose. But one can take this a step too far and decide that everything is liable to misinterpretation when scrutinised.

5. Concluding Synthesis

It is perhaps good practice to question the accuracy of phrases or word-choices or the coherence of ideas. But if that begins to impede productivity, perhaps you should attempt to write posthumously, then edit the text with the public's eyes in mind, and then consider what words and ideas demand erasure.

Those considerations may mean you conclude that your only sensible inference is that what you wrote should be used with caution. That is acceptable: sometimes the work academics produce in experiments--which is what much text is--shows only that the experiment failed. The usefulness in 'wrong' experimental writing is to save yourself and others from the same mistakes and that means you need not always be 'right'. It is therefore worth considering the most appropriate style or forum for what you are trying to say before you try to write it.

Created: 12 December 2013. Version 1.0.

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