25 January 2008

Thoughts on writing, part 1

What makes one a good writer? This question, along with ‘Am I a good writer?’ frequently sits on the shoulder of every writer, like a little devil, whispering sweet nothings into the writer’s ear.
But they are valid questions. A writer is someone who uses the written word to communicate a concept or idea. A good writer is someone who has the ability to use the written word to communicate an idea in such a way that the reader understands.

Maybe it is easier to ask what makes a bad writer. Being a bad writer goes beyond the inability to use language correctly. In fact, many good writers have the ability to convey their message while making grammatical errors and spelling blunders. And that is part of being a bad writer: using the language for the sake of the language, to show off. Many bad writers will focus on the language, just to impress the reader with their vocabulary, rather than focussing on the subject matter, often losing the reader after the first paragraph.

The writing should make sense. Whether the piece is a business document, philosophy essay, anguished poem or novel, the reader should understand what the writer intended to communicate. The better the reader understands the piece, the better the writer is at his craft. Consider the following examples:

These examples are from the annual Bad Writing Contest, so the bad writing is intentional.

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than from the more thankless effort to discipline the viewer).

The following example is taken from this site:

If the theories of science were the laws of origin how do people have such strong emotions from a science experiment? Freud speaks of a child that is lost, but love created this child and God gave him a soul to love back. He thought religion fulfilled the gap for new adults who had no parents but there seems to be a lot of children with parents that give them love, security, and their needs and they still believe highly in God and the scriptures. This proves that religion does not fill the gap of a parent which has been lost.
This example was part of a news article a couple of years ago:

The 23-year-old beauty, who started dating 32-year-old Law in October 2003, was devastated last week to read newspaper revelations about the Oscar-nominated star's month-long affair with his former children's nanny Daisy Wright.

This was from an email I received once:

it should all be up now the server belongs to so you can configure it as you wish the sql db is on the server its self do what ever you need just pls let me know of any changes to the system i will be doing sql updates this evening
And this, amazingly, was from a packet of Shrimp chips:

Way of Eating: Before eating ,put cooking oil into the pan and burn it, then put in the sliced prawns and bake them for about the seconds After that ,the sliced prawns will be tasty and crisp.

Way of Preservation:This product should be kept dry in sealld champer. If dampening and softening, please use it after drying in the sun

What makes these examples of bad writing? With the first two examples, it should be glaringly obvious: it leaves the reader incredibly confused. But, as they were intentionally bad, it is to be expected. However, the rest of the examples are real-life examples.

The third example leaves the reader as confused as the first two did, or maybe even more so. It also gives the impression that the writer didn’t really have a clue what they were writing about.
The fourth example about Mr Law’s affair is tricky. The reader understands most of that sentence, but the bit that is confusing is this:

his former children's nanny

This creates the impression that the children are no longer his. The writer obviously meant to say his children’s former nanny (which is still a little clumsy, but far more accurate)

Example number 5 is mostly confusing due to the lack of punctuation. It could probably be re-written like this:

It should all be up now. The server belongs to you, so you can configure it as you with. The SQL DB is on the server itself, so you can do whatever you need. Please just let me know of any changes to the system, as I will be doing SQL updates this evening.

Makes a huge difference, doesn’t it?

The last example is just a bit of fun. The meaning actually comes through clearly, despite the fact that it appears to have been translated from the original Mandarin to English via Swahili.

Now that we have covered examples of bad writing, do we know yet what makes a good writer? That will have to be the topic of my next entry, because this one, already, is approaching novella status.

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