Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Linear texts vs. non-linear thoughts / My style of writing

with 3 comments

With my intense recent writing, and especially writing of longer texts, I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect upon my writing process, the quality of the results, what I might do differently now than in the past, and similar.

I am particularly interested in the problematic linearity of language, something I wrote about as early as (almost) a decade ago, in a text on the Limitations of language [1]: Language is linear; thoughts are not.

The thoughts (opinions, ideas, associations, whatnots) of the human mind form a complex network. An ideal communication would not just bring a single strand or chain of thought into the minds of the “receiver”—it would bring the entire network. Not only is this required for comprehending the totality of what the “sender” thinks, it is also required to truly understand even the single strand that might be the main point of the communication: All understanding of others is imperfect. The degree can vary considerably, but perfection cannot be reached without having the entire network of the counter-part. Notably, relying on one’s own network can lead to very considerable miscomprehension when the networks are far apart, e.g. due to changing times, different cultural backgrounds, differently evolved understanding of the topic, different emotional modes or practical contexts, …

Solving this problem is the Holy Grail of communication.

Unfortunately, it is likely to remain unsolved, at least for human communications: Not only is it unrealistic to even put into words more than a small, pertinent part of the network, but the more of the network is included, the greater the demands on the reader in terms of comprehension, ability to absorb and retain, time and patience needed, … A particular complication is the connections between the nodes of the network: In reality, a text will mostly deal with the nodes, putting most of the burden of correct interconnection with the reader—doing otherwise would lead to impossibly long texts.* Even the collected works of a great philosopher are unlikely to give a complete network—and how many have actually read, let alone retained and comprehended, such a collection? (This even discounting some trifling details like the philosopher’s opinions possibly changing between books A and B…)

*For an understanding, look into elementary combinatorics.

Looking at my own writings, I have long tried to put larger parts of my network into my texts than most others do. This partially for the above reasons, partially (admittedly) through lack of discipline, and partially because doing so helps me develop my network and to extend and revise my understanding of the issues and arguments at hand, society, myself, …—and self-improvement is the main purpose of my writings (cf. [2], [3]). I deliberately do so even at the risk of a text appearing or being unstructured, excessively long, lacking in focus, or violating some other characteristic typically considered part of quality writing.

Notably, given the right reader, “appearing” is often more appropriate than “being”: Someone who reads and thinks like I do, and who is willing to go the extra mile, will gain more from my texts as they are than from the same text written “by the book”—and will do so with little discomfort. (But I realize that only a minority of the potential readers will match this description.)

Consider e.g. what I wrote a week ago (when I did most of the thinking for the current text): On a superficial inspection, the text might look entirely haphazard; in actuality, it is not.

Notably, the general structure of the main text actually has a plan: First, an event (Bahta’s test issues) is taken, described, and expanded upon in terms of implications. Second, the event is generalized to a bigger picture (consequences of anti-doping measures on athletes) and problems of the bigger picture are described. Third, as a center and turning point, a call for change (re-evaluation of doping) is made based on the preceding. Fourth, the call is given additional motivation through a discussion of other aspects than the athletes’ situations. Fifth, some counter-arguments are discussed (partly to “declaw” them; partly to be reasonably complete). Finally, a very strong argument in favor of my call from outside sports is thrown in, to show that the benefits are not limited to sports, and to hammer home the point. (Admittedly, the placing of this final argument was less a rhetorical plan and more a problem of where to fit it.)

Here the main part of the text, when skipping the footnotes, is formed into a linear skeleton, or strand, which during my own readings* moved my mind from A to B to C … in a pleasing, structured, and target reaching manner—even be it somewhat unusually.

*I try to read and proof-read my texts several times before publication. I am aware that my experience of the text can be different from what others see, because my mind tends to work differently and because being the author can change the experience for anyone.

This strand is expanded by a number of footnotes that can be read during, alternating with, or after the reading of the strand—or they can be left out entirely, at some risk of reaching a simplistic understanding of my intentions and the details of the issue. The result is not quite a net, but goes well beyond a single strand.

A further expansion takes place as a series of excursion at the end, that either did not fit content-wise in the main text, or were simply too long to be a constructive part of the main text or the footnotes.

With the occasional intra-text and (per link) inter-text reference, as well as some combinatory ability on part of the reader, I now have a “net-ish” overall structure. This remains far from being the complete net, but it covers far more ground than the single strand does.

(Of course, the description above need only partially reflect an original plan—as my understanding, intentions, whatnot change, so can the plan. Equally, it does not necessarily reflect the order of writing: Footnotes are mostly written concurrently with the paragraph they appear in, and excursions can, in rare cases, even be written before the main text.)

Looking at the negatives of my writings, there are many things that I could do better (even in the light of my priorities). For instance, not every piece has a structure or focus that I approve of myself. Consider e.g. yesterday’s post and the sub-topic of pharmacies: This text would have been better, had I removed every single word on pharmacies. Barring that, this sub-topic should have been cut considerably—especially, being somewhat off topic. However, since pharmacies were a part of my original intention, I thought that I would just mention this and why I had chosen not to expand on the intention. Doing so, I was led to speculate on the underlying mechanisms, the topic of service reared its head—and then things got out of hand…* In terms of my main priority, this was not necessarily a bad thing, seeing that it caused me to think some things through, do a bit of reading around pharmacies, and brought me the realization that I have a surprising amount of annoyance at them (relative my comparatively few interactions); however, the published text was worse off, and I should have put this sub-topic in a separate text or even canned it entirely—not every word I write must be published.** More generally, the fact that I put in comparatively little effort in preparation regularly leaves me with pieces that do not quite fit in the whole, or a need to restructure the text as the writing proceeds.***

*A sometime danger with my approach to writing. Similarly, I have on some occasions started to write on topic A and found that the main part of the text actually dealt with other topics, because I began with a specific idea around topic A, saw it sprout a few associations, that in turn sprouted further associations, …, and most of these associations related to topic B. (Mostly, I have either moved the “official” topic of the text to B, or divided it into several smaller texts.)

**I failed to do so out of a mixture of laziness, tiredness after the already long work on the text, and a misguided feeling of “it’s a shame to waste all that effort”.

***This is contrary to many recommendations on writing, e.g. that one should start with a very clear outline (and stick to that outline) or that preparation is key. However, having more than a very rough outline would hinder me in my main priority: With these texts, it is not the goal of the journey that is important—but the journey, it self.

Another problem is the lack of more formal structure, e.g. the use of headings and sub-headings or the inclusion of e.g. a brief introduction or conclusion. Here the recent considerable increase in text length has caught me off guard, and I still proceed in a manner more suited to my pre-sabbatical texts.* As a special case, I have found that for shorter and more focused texts, a simple list/enumeration often works better than formal headings, especially when it allows a more natural textual flow; however, this can fail for longer texts, when the items of the list grow too long, or when several lists would be needed. The matter is complicated by technical restrictions and a fear of technical problems in my current markup-to-HTML-to-Wordpress setup, which make me hesitant to introduce headings before I am back on my website proper.

*I have more time to spend on writing, the process is less of a chore, and I usually have a clearer head than I do in the hours between “got back from work” and “time to sleep”. In combination with my writing approach, this has lead to an entirely unplanned change of typical length.

Obviously, this length issue could prove problematic for the type of structure discussed above too: It might be a pragmatical necessity to change approach with works of such lengths. (Or to deliberately write shorter pieces…)

Yet other problems have nothing to do with structure. For instance, I noted my own wordiness a decade ago, and things have not approved since then—for the very reason given in that text.

Excursion on the Holy Grail vs. own understanding:
Receiving a message as intended is only a part of message processing. While the goal of communication, per se, is to send and receive messages with as little loss as possible, it is not a given that understanding the sender is the best the receiver can do. In many cases, interpreting the message in the own network can be more worthwhile, especially when the receiver is (in some sense) more advanced than the sender or when sender and receiver have different priorities. (But he should then keep this in mind when e.g. criticizing the message.) For instance, if the sender presents some facts and arguments, the receiver might use them for other purposes than the sender did. Certainly, there is no obligation to accept the sender’s conclusions and recommendations: The receiver should strive to understand why the sender came to a certain conclusion and how the sender reasoned, but whether he agrees with the sender is a matter of his own reasoning, possibly under application of additional facts and arguments that might not have been present in the message.

Excursion on footnotes*:
An interesting difference in structure between my current writings and what I once wrote for my website is the use of footnotes and “informal” excursions rather than “formal” boxes with side-notes. The latter are more optically pleasing and I originally only started to use footnotes as a quick-and-dirty solution. By now, however, I actually find the new way to be superior in most regards, including being less intrusive (at a given length) and having a better possibility to anchor the footnote to a specific part of the main text. (Possible technical and formatting improvements, e.g., a switch from “starred” markers to numerical markers, notwithstanding.)

*“Paragraph note” might hit the actual use better, but might also cause more confusion than it brings clarity.

Excursion on writing vs. coding:
My approach to writing is likely unconsciously influenced by how I (often) program: I have had considerable exposure to e.g. systematic refactoring, Scrum, and test-driven development, often leading to an approach of writing code according to the current need and then constantly adapting it as requirements are incrementally specified, weaknesses are spotted, … A critical difference, however, is that the code is driven by a specific goal and my texts are more driven by the learning experience; making e.g. an excursion a waste of time and a potential source of problems in the former case, but a beneficial means of growth in the latter. I stress, however, that I do not recommend shoddy planning when it comes to coding. On the contrary, spending time thinking through the general outline of the code, what complications might ensue, what interface must be provided, what might be modularized how, etc. in advance is highly recommendable. (With the reservation that the simpler the problem and more competent the developer, less planning tends to be needed. With the right “feel” and experience, much of this is sufficiently intuitively obvious that the planning stage can be diminished.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

August 5, 2018 at 12:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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3 Responses

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  1. […] **I deliberately avoided “complete thought”, which could imply that the entirety of a thought is expressed. This, in turn, is only rarely the case with a single sentence. (Cf. [1].) […]

  2. […] the most, …, tend to be the ones combining two or more ideas. The way of writing described in an older text also almost forces the inclusion of multiple ideas, even when the original drive was not rooted in […]

  3. […] transmission from brain to brain to result in the correct understanding. (Also see e.g. parts of [1].) The impression that arises with the reader does not prescribe what the original intent was—and […]


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