Random Thoughts on Writing: From ‘Simplify, Simplify’ to Doing ‘Much Much’

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Echoing Thoreau’s call to ‘simplify, simplify’, Coco Chanel reportedly advised women that before leaving the house, they should remove one accessory or piece of jewelry. Good advice for fashion. Good advice for writing.

The poet Mary Oliver described a similar approach to her wordcraft: “Whatever isn’t necessary shouldn’t be in a poem.”

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Perhaps this applies to all creative acts (e.g., writing, baking, painting, decorating, acrobatics). A practical mantra: “Whatever isn’t necessary shouldn’t be in a _____”—something that rings true after my recent cucumber omelette debacle. Still, an obvious truth, but not quite so easy to accomplish.

In Writing Well, William Zinsser gets to the heart of the writer’s (and the reader’s) struggle:

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. […] But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank. (2006, p. 6)

So, the more educated and accomplished you are, the more impenetrable your writing? That often seems to be the case. Here’s a random example (I won’t list the author’s name):

“But for us, as remarked above, something more was apparent, viz. that the differences, qua differences of content and form, vanished in themselves; and on the side of form, the essence of the active, soliciting or independent side, was the same as that which, on the side of content, presented itself as Force driven back into itself; the side which was passive, which was solicited or for an other, was from the side of form, the same as that which, from the side of content, presented itself as the universal medium of the many ‘matters’.”

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Zinsser has some comments about writing and stripping (well, the academic variety):

Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say. If you give me an eight-page article and I tell you to cut it to four pages, you’ll howl and say it can’t be done. Then you’ll go home and do it, and it will be much better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three. The point is that you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. (2006, p. 17)

I admit that I find critique painful (I’m still working on developing a thicker skin). But I do love revising—I mean, I really love revising. Maybe I’m a bit odd that way, but I take the act of revision as a challenge and a way for me to prove that I can do it. Deborah Lupton’s blog post offers some very helpful advice for responding to critique and the academic revision process.

Howard Becker, in Writing for Social Scientists, also insists on ruthlessly stripping prose to the essentials:

We had replaced redundancies, “fancy writing, “pompous phrases (for instance, my personal bête noire, “the way in which,” for which a plain “how” can usually be substituted without losing anything but pretentiousness)—anything that could be simplified without damage to the thought. We decided that authors tried to give substance and weight to what they wrote by sounding academic, even at the expense of their real meaning. (Becker, 2007, p. 7)

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The message: When in doubt, keep it short. When not in doubt, still keep it short.

Over 100 years ago, William Cullen Bryant, longtime editor of the New York Evening Post, advised:

“Be simple, unaffected; be honest in your speaking and writing. Never use a long word where a short one will do as well” (Bigelow, 1890, p. 74)

H.M. Fowler & F. G. Fowler (1908) offered the same message in The King’s English:

Anyone who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he [sic] allows himself [sic] to be tempted by more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid.

The Fowler brothers, ever charitable, present several ‘practical rules’ for the writer:

  • Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
  • Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
  • Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
  • Prefer the short word to the long.
  • Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance. (i.e., words borrowed directly from Latin, and by extension, Italian, French, Spanish, etc.)

Alas, it appears Becker’s precious “bête noire” from the preceding quote may run afoul (‘afowl’?) of the Fowlers.

In his widely-read essay on Politics and the English Language, George Orwell (1946) offers his own list:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (p. 139)

For Orwell, the remedy for cluttered writing is clarity and brevity:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he [sic] writes, will ask himself [sic] at least four questions, thus: What am I ‘trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he [sic] will probably ask himself [sic] two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? (p. 135)

Cluttered writing obscures the message and the writer. Zinsser and others are sympathetic to the writer, and they recognize that writing demands persistence, honesty, enthusiasm, and even vulnerability.

There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you. Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by computer, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can’t write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first. But all of them are vulnerable and all of them are tense. They are driven by a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper, and yet they don’t just write what comes naturally. They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write. The problem is to find the real man or woman behind the tension.

Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me—some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life? It’s not necessary to want to spend a year alone at Walden Pond to become involved with a writer who did.

This is the personal transaction that’s at the heart of good non-fiction writing. Out of it come the two most important qualities: humanity and warmth. Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalize” the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength” (Zinsser, 2010, p. 5)

Perhaps academics are more prone to cling to our thick, precious prose because we feel a demand to prove and defend (even advertise) our hard-won knowledge and expertise. C. Wright Mills (2000) points this out in The Sociological Imagination and hints at the traces of ‘physics envy’ (cf. Denzin & Lincoln, 2011; Wolcott, 2009) that pervades the social sciences:

I know you will agree that you should present your work in as clear and simple language as your subject and your thought about it permit. But as you may have noticed, a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences. I suppose those who use it believe they are imitating ‘physical science,’ and are not aware that much of that prose is not altogether necessary. […] Such lack of ready intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of subject matter, and nothing at all with the profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his [or her, their] own status. (pp. 217-218)

Becker (2007) also connects the “lack of ready intelligibility” to our academic credentials:

Living as an intellectual or academic makes people want to appear smart, in the sense of clever or intelligent, to themselves and others. But not only smart. They also want to appear knowledgeable or worldly or sophisticated or down-home or professional-all sorts of things, many of which they can hint at in the details of their writing. They hope that being taken for such a person will make what they say believable. (pp. 31-32)

In The Intellectual Life (a book I highly recommend to all scholars, and a precursor to Cal Newport’s celebrated Deep Work), Antonin Sertillanges, the Thomasian philosopher, offers advice on managing the life and demands of scholarly study and creativity. Regarding creative style, he writes:

The qualities of style may be set out under as many headings as you will; but they can all be contained, I think, in these three words: truth, individuality, and simplicity; unless you prefer to sum it all up in a single formula: one must write truly. A style is true when it corresponds to a necessity of thought and when it keeps intimate contact with things. (Sertillanges, 1960, p. 202)

But individuality of style neither licenses nor excuses excess:

Embellishment is an offense against thought, unless it be an expedient to conceal its void. There are no embellishments in the real; there are only organic necessities. […]0c3b8e90d48e9633f33257d2e123e51b--writing-quotes-on-writing

A sentence, a passage, must be constituted like a living branch, like the fibers of a root, like a tree. Nothing super-added, nothing aside […] Style excludes everything useless; it is strict economy in the midst of riches; it spends whatever is necessary, saves in one place by skillful arrangement, and lavishes its resources elsewhere for the glory of the truth. Its rule is not to shine, but to set off the matter; it must efface itself, and it is then that its own glory appears. “The beautiful is the removal of all superfluity,” said Michelangelo…. (Sertillanges, 1960, pp. 206-207)

In other words, look in the mirror and take off the jewelry.

Orwell also recognizes the threat of clutter to the writer’s sincerity and truth of purpose:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms. like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. (1946, p. 137)

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(The caption here is perfect)

http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/C/cuttlefish.html

Annie Dillard, throughout her books describes the ‘fearful’ and ‘feral’ world of writing. In The Writing Life, she lays out the challenge that invariably awaits at the start of a project:

Writing every book [or other creative work], the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do it? (1989, p. 72)

In If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland, addresses the creative person’s fears in this way:

You may not have much ability but what you have, get it all out and be humble and simple and work even if you can think of no words with more than one syllable, and do the best you can and learn by doing much much, in spite of imperfections. (2010, p. 166)

So, here I am, advised to ‘simplify, simplify’ and to do ‘much much’. I guess I’d better get back to work!

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On researcher self-awareness

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Jack D. Douglas, in his 1995 book, Creative Interviewing (SAGE Press), has much to say about reflective interviewing and even the emotional aspects of research for researchers and participants. I appreciate how he embraces the “messiness” and emergent nature of the whole research process. In one section, he urges researchers to do some serious self-reflection before thinking about investigating the lives of others:

“As a general rule, no one should be an explorer of human beings unless he [sic] can face painful self-discoveries, unless he [sic] has already undertaken a great deal of self-exploration and exploration by others, especially by probing close friends who have shared the joy and anguish of the endless search for mutual understanding. Even more important, and interviewer should not try to discover truths about those areas where he [sic] has major emotional problems until these have been thoroughly explored and resolved.

Everyone makes mistake and no human explorer worth his gadfly spurs has every gone unscathed by this bit of human frailty. But remarkably few have every admitted this publicly.” (pp. 39-40)

“All serious thinkers now know that thinkers, including social researchers of all kinds, are really just human beings.” (p. 41)

I have publicly talked and written about the human and emotional side of research – as well as my own mistakes and failures. But this is not the same thing as seeking to advance an “emotionalist” perspective over a “positivist” one. I’ll write more on that in another post. I should note that a number of qualitative researchers, such as Kathy Roulston and Kathleen Gilbert, and recent edited volumes by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln, Jim McKinley and Heath Rose, and others are also encouraging greater dialogue on these matters.

 

New review of my book in ‘SYSTEM’!

A new review of my book is coming out in System (Elsevier Publishing). Here is the In Press link. The reviewer, Bee Chamcharatsri (University of New Mexico), has wri335tten a very thoughtful and engaging review. Here’s a quote from his final paragraph:

Prior’s Emotion and discourse in L2 narrative research is essential to qualitative researchers who are interested in adding analytical lens of emotions in their analyses of interview data. Throughout the whole book, Prior presents how emotionality is important in qualitative autobiographical interviews through transcripts of his participants and critically analyzes his role as an interviewer. Because many qualitative researchers and graduate students use interviews in their studies, I believe this book will help them to pay closer attention to the emotionality that participants and the researchers co-construct the narratives. In my opinion, this book has helped me to further examine my positionality as an applied linguist in employing interviewing as a method of inquiry in the future. I highly recommend this book to everyone who may be thinking of incorporating emotions in their qualitative interview research and analyses. Let’s get emotional!

New Publication

ALRI have a new research article out (available ahead of print) in Applied Linguistics Review (a great journal!) on “Accomplishing “rapport” in qualitative research interviews: Empathic moments in interaction.” 

Abstract:

This study seeks to bring a more interactionally grounded perspective to the concept of “rapport” and its relevance for qualitative interviewing practices. Building on work within conversation analysis (CA), it respecifies rapport as affiliation and, more specifically, empathy. Analysis centers on case study data from an interview with an asylum seeker from the Philippines. It examines how interviewer and interviewee move in and out of empathic moments across the interview sequences as they manage their affective stances related to the events the interviewee describes and, in turn, by managing their empathic alignments with each other. These empathic moments share a number of features: they primarily come after response delays and the interviewee’s response pursuits, they are part of assessment sequences built by lexical reformulation and repetition, they entail stance matching and upgrading mainly through the use of prosodic resources, and they involve the interviewee asserting his primary rights to characterize and assess his own experiences. The article concludes by recommending more attention to the affiliative and empathic dimensions of qualitative interviewing.

Keywords: interviews, conversation analysis, rapport, empathy, emotion

Memento mori: random-ish thoughts

Memento mori: a Latin phrase that translates to ‘remember that you have to die’.

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It may not appear quite as inspiring as carpe diem (‘pluck the day’ or ‘seize the day’), but it nevertheless conveys the same ineluctable certainty: our days on this earth, however many or few, are finite. Though we apprehend this truth of our mortality, we don’t really comprehend it. As Frederick Buechner points out,

Intellectually we all know that we will die, but we do not really know it in the sense that the knowledge becomes part of us. We do not really know it in the sense of living as though it were true. On the contrary, we tend to live as though our lives would go on forever. We spend our lives like drunken sailors. (1969, p. 72)

Perhaps we don’t truly come to grips with the ephemerality of life until we first come face to face with our own mortality or see its reflection in those close to us when our bodies or minds become touched by the shadow of illness, injury, or aging.

When we respond to the suffering of others, assuming we chooold-letters-436502__340se to acknowledge and step into that space of weakness and imperfection, are we not in some manner also responding to ourselves? Christianity teaches “love your neighbor as yourself” and Buddhism has an expression about seeing yourself in others.

In our response to human suffering, we might say, “That could be…will be…is me.” Or in the words attributed to John Bradford, the old English reformer and martyr, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” How introspective and compassionate we are!

How patronizing and cruel.

W.H. Auden remarked, “all pity is self-pity.” If we’re truthful, we may admit that we’re at least partly uncomfortable because we’re instinctively selfish; we can’t help but make all suffering about our reality and our feelings. Seeing other people’s worlds disturbed in turn upsets the comforting equilibrium of our own. We want other people to feel better because we also want to feel better. Psychologists refer to these as ‘egoistic motives’ (i.e., self-benefiting) — in contrast to ‘altruistic motives’ (i.e., other-benefiting) which are more empathic and focused on helping the other person (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007).

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When faced with suffering, do we respond with banal platitudes (“You’re in my thoughts.” “I’m sending ‘positive vibes’!”) and half-meant promises (“I’ll visit.” “I’ll be happy to help out if you need anything.”) — or can/must we offer something more? Does fear prevent us from getting too close physically or emotionally? How much of a personal connection or commitment beyond this moment are we willing to make?

But perhaps this moment is enough. In consideration of our own mental and emotional space, or our other constraints, maybe it is all right to be content with the limited portion that we have to give. If we’re not prepared to risk ourselves, and if others are reluctant or unwilling to accept what we have to offer (especially if offered unwillingly or falsely), then self-condemnation would achieve little for either party.

Then again, what if such rationalizations are not “good enough”? Though meant to spare others, aren’t they really meant to spare us from our own personal discomfort with the suffering of others?  What if such rationalizations are not good enough for other people who are most in need of sustained human connection — or for us, who may also be in need of human connection…with this person?

It’s rather presumptuous of us to assume that those who are suffering have nothing of value to contribute to our lives. Yet neither do they exist to assuage our guilt; nor is it theirs to grant us sainthood or to help us rack up karma points.

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Over four decades ago, the author Madeline L’Engle had this to say about the attitudinal and interpersonal struggles surrounding old age, illness, and dying:

As for me, when my time comes, I’d like to be put out on an ice floe.

I heard a doctor say that the living tend to withdraw emotionally from the dying, thereby driving them deeper into isolation. Not to withdraw takes tremendous strength. To pull back is a temptation; it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as remaining open. […] There is always the memento mori, the realization that death is contagious; it is contracted the moment we are conceived. […]

I always took a bath when I got home from the hospital.

It takes a tremendous maturity, a maturity I don’t possess, to strike the balance of involvement/detachment which makes us creatively useful, able to be compassionate, to be involved in the other person’s suffering rather than in our own response to it. False compassion, or sentimentality, always leads us to escape by withdrawing, by becoming cold and impassive and wounding. (1972, pp. 117-120)

I appreciate her honesty. L’Engle’s phrase, “which makes us creatively useful” continues to captivate me. I need to give more thought to what it means to be useful to others in ways that are not always obvious or predictable, but in those that are unexpected, thoughtful, imaginative, inspired, original, inconspicuous.

dying-flower-1I don’t see memento mori as grim or depressing. I see it as a reminder that we have before us the task of sorting through the detritus of everyday life to ascertain what ultimately does and does not matter.

It appears this business gets easier as time gets shorter. Atul Gawande (2014) in his book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, explains how “socioemotional selectivity theory” developed by Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen gives some insight into the value of close social relationships. Essentially, the theory posits that as people progress toward the end of their lives, they become more selective about how they invest in emotionally meaningful goals and relationships. This allows them to maintain positive emotional regulation:

…how we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have. When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever. You do not worry about losing any of your capabilities. People tell you “the world is your oyster,”

…when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain—your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you. (Gawande, 2014, pp. 97-98)

So, here’s to memento mori, becoming less afraid, growing emotionally mature, investing in emotionally meaningful relationships, being creatively useful, and staying playful. 

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References

  • Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Encyclopedia of social psychology (Vol. 1). London: SAGE.
  • Buechner, F. (1969). The hungering dark. New York: Seabury Press.
  • Gawande, A. (2014). Being mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  • L’Engle, M. (1972). A circle of quiet: The Crosswicks journal (Vol. 1). New York: HarperCollins.

What makes us ‘human’

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The 13th century Persian poet Saadi is quoted as saying that a person who is indifferent to the pain or suffering of others is a traitor to that which is truly human.

Although empathy is more in line with what Saadi was referring to, numerous studies have shown that pain, suffering, fear, and other emotional responses can be socially acquired through observing the suffering of others. Hatfield et al.’s (1994) fascinating book, Emotional Contagion, for example, offers a glimpse into the mechanisms behind the spread of emotions and emotional synchrony.

mouseBut this suffering and response business isn’t just for humans—animals do it too! Experimental studies such as Jeon et al. (2010) found that mice developed freezing behavior after observing another mouse receive repeated foot shocks (ouch!). Moreover, the observer mice’s fear responses were intensified when the shocked mice were socially related (e.g., mates, siblings)! This may give you something to ponder when purchasing your next mousetrap.

More accessible accounts of emotion in the animal world include The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow and Empathy–And Why They Matter by Mark Bekoff, How Animals Grieve by Barbara King, and When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals by Jeffrey Moussaleff Masson and Susan McCarthy.

Are you feeling sad for the mice in Jeon et al.’s (2010) study? Perhaps sympathy…er…empathy? Is there a difference? Here’s a quote from my in-press publication:

The terms empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but an examination of interactants’ affiliative work warrants greater precision. Empathy “involves sharing the perceived emotion of another – ‘feeling with’ another” (Eisenberg and Strayer 1990: 5) and is “the imaginative sharing of someone else’s experience” (Hepburn and Potter 2007: 99). Heritage defines empathy as “an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition” (2011: 161). Sympathy may be thought of as “‘feeling for’ someone, and refers to feelings of sorrow, or feeling sorry, for another” (Eisenberg and Strayer 1990: 6), but it does not require sharing or identifying with the other person’s feelings.

(Prior, in-press)

You can also watch this entertaining 3-minute video which explains the difference between empathy and sympathy quite nicely.

Can we say, then, that this shared lack of indifference to suffering—whether it’s a physiological or psychological response, a show of compassion, or something else—makes both people and animals truly “human”? Hmm…

References

  • Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J.T., & Rapson, R.L. (1994). Emotional contagion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jeon, D. et al. (2010). Observational fear learning involves affective pain system and Cav 1.2 Ca2+ channels in ACC. Nature Neuroscience 13(4), 482-490.