Sunday, October 16, 2011

on writing logically and clearly

It may sound tautological, but bad writing sucks. There are so many ways to write badly that I thought I'd focus on only two major problems today: poor overall organization and lack of clarity. Both of these pitfalls are avoidable.

I. Outlines as the Backbone of Logical Organization

The basic template for writing in the Western world is the outline. This structure has been with us for centuries, if not millennia, and it's the foundation of all modern expository and persuasive writing in English and other European languages. The outline is the structure on which we hang our systematic thoughts, and it relies on a very mundane, commonsense intuition: everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The format for any piece of expository (i.e., for explaining) or persuasive (i.e., for convincing) writing, then, looks like this:

1. Beginning
2. Middle
3. End

Students who routinely write essays probably know the above by different names:

I. Intro
II. Body
III. Conclusion

--but it's the same concept, and for an outline, the concept unfurls this way:

I. Intro (hook, buildup, thesis-- not necessarily in that order)

II. Body (everything in support of the thesis)
  A. First main idea
    1. Supporting detail
    2. Supporting detail
    3. Supporting detail (+ transition)

  B. Second main idea
    1. Supporting detail
    2. Supporting detail
    3. Supporting detail (+ transition)

  C. Third main idea
    1. Supporting detail
    2. Supporting detail
    3. Supporting detail (+ transition?)

III. Conclusion (summary of the argument/explanation that got us to this point; restatement of thesis)

The above schema generally plays out as the infamous five-paragraph essay: an intro paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph. While extremely practical for writing essays on the SAT I, the schema can also be expanded for more extended writing projects, such as long essays or research papers: simply add more paragraphs to the body. In all cases where the student needs to write expositorily or persuasively, the outline provides the framework for logical expression.

A lot of students will say something like, "But I don't like outlining. I just start writing and go with that." My response to this is twofold: (1) if you're mentally organized enough to produce essays and research papers that come out in beautifully organized form, then bravo! You've already mastered outlining, even if you're not writing your outlines down. But, (2) if you're like most other students, your initial attempts at "going with that" will result in mushy, disorganized writing-- arguments that start but reach no conclusion, or arguments with conclusions arrived at through no discernible logical process. My rule of thumb: better safe than sorry. Get into the habit of outlining your arguments and expositions before you even begin writing. It's hard work-- I remember disliking doing this as a young student-- but it's a valuable skill that will stand you in good stead later on, especially if you're planning to get through college, and maybe even graduate school.

NB: I've avoided talking about another form of writing-- narrative-- because such writing is less inherently logical and more about the evocation of feelings than the crystallizing of thoughts. Asking a creative writer to follow a rigid outline is like asking trees to grow in perfect geometric shapes. This isn't to say that creative writing doesn't require any organization at all; such writing still depends on eloquence, structural harmony, and internal consistency, and may even benefit from something like an outline-style schema. But creative writing is more organic than systematic, which is why I'm not focusing on it here.

II. The Need for Clarity

Many people who should know better-- and these are often, ironically, people in academe like philosophers and English professors-- write horribly. What makes their writing so poor is their inability (or unwillingness?) to strive for clarity of expression. Below is an embarrassing mess of a paragraph, excerpted from the final chapter of an anthology titled The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (William Irwin, ed.). The paper's author is Slovenian "philosopher" Slavoj Žižek. His paper for this anthology is "The Matrix: Or, The Two Sides of Perversion." Take a look:

In "Le prix du progès," one of the fragments that conclude The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer quote the argument of the nineteenth-century French physiologist Pierre Flourens against medical anesthesia with chloroform. Flourens claims that it can be proven that the anesthetic works only on our memory's neuronal network. In short, while we are butchered alive on the operating table, we fully feel the terrible pain, but later, after awakening, we do not remember it ... For Adorno and Horkheimer, this, of course, is the perfect metaphor of the fate of Reason based on the repression of nature in itself: his body, the part of nature in the subject, fully feels the pain, it is only that due to repression, the subject does not remember it. Therein resides the perfect revenge of nature for our domination over it: Unknowingly, we are our own greatest victims, butchering ourselves alive ... Isn't it also possible to read this as the perfect fantasy scenario of inter-passivity, of the Other Scene in which we pay the price for our active intervention into the world? There is no active free agent without this phantasmic support, without this Other Scene in which he is totally manipulated by the Other. A sado-masochist willingly assumes this suffering as the access to Being.

The above strikes me as incoherent-- and reading that paragraph in context with the rest of the paper doesn't help matters. I'll admit the first two-thirds of the above paragraph makes sense, more or less, but things rapidly degenerate as the paragraph blunders drunkenly toward its "conclusion." Were you able to follow Žižek's logic? You should have been. That's what happens with good, clear writing: even when you find yourself in medias res (in the middle of the thing), you should at least be able to understand the writer's reasoning. But how exactly does Žižek go from "We feel pain during surgery but don't remember it" to "human freedom (agency) requires participation in an ironic sadomasochistic fantasy in which Nature has the last laugh"? (Come to think of it: what's the connection between surgery and sadomasochism?)

Confused? Me, too.

Granted: academics, when they write their papers, aren't usually writing for the general public. If we're to be charitable, we have to assume that Žižek's audience is composed mostly of fellow postmodernist scholars (then again, The Matrix and Philosophy is an anthology for popular consumption). But even by the shaky standards of postmodernist scholarship, you'd expect Žižek to write more clearly, wouldn't you? Alas, postmodernists are infamous for their half-baked fusions of Freud and Nietzsche and other disparate sources; coherence is rarely their strong point. I say: the more time and effort you, as a reader, have to waste "unpacking" or "unraveling" what a writer is trying to say, the more likely it is that you're dealing with a bad writer.

Don't be that type of writer. Express yourself clearly. Make sure your conclusions follow neatly from your premises. Make sure your arguments flow and aren't obscured by an insane love of complexity. Keep your sentences crisp and direct. They don't necessarily have to be short, but they should never be overburdened with clauses and connectors that make the reader feel he's on a Möbius-looped roller coaster, or on a slog through the brimstone-reeking wastes of hell. Your writing should be engaging, even to readers outside the compass of your readership. Aim to write for an audience somewhat wider than the one you think you're writing for.

Upshot: keep your thoughts organized, and express them clearly and accessibly.


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