Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few thoughts around prose

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What makes good or aesthetic prose and good (writing) style has been on my mind lately. A few particular issues:

  1. I am not convinced that these matters are that important: Language is mostly a vehicle for something else*. By analogy, whether someone watches the same movie in VGA and mono or Ultra-HD and surround sound can make a difference—but it is far more important what movie is watched. If someone can get the point across with mediocre writing—is that not enough?

    *Exactly what depends on the work. Examples include a set of facts, a line of reasoning, a character portrait, a realistic depiction of life, a series of action scenes, a feeling of horror, …

    Some* authors have such an ability to write beautiful prose that it enhances the enjoyment of the text; however, they are a small minority and most best-selling** authors are fairly weak in this regard.

    *I can e.g. recall being highly impressed by some of Goethe’s and Thomas Mann’s works. Unsurprisingly, such authors often have a background heavy in poetry; surprisingly, they have often been German, possibly because the apparent unwieldiness of the German language has led to a compensating increase in skill. Shakespeare is an obvious English example, to the degree that his plays are considered prose.

    **This could partially be explained by the typically commercial and/or “low brow” character of best-selling material. However, (a) the basic principle of language as a vehicle applies even to “high literature”, (b) there are plenty of examples of high literature in unremarkable or even poor prose. (The German of Kafka, e.g., is in parts horrendous, yet he remains in high esteem.) The success of great literature when translated into other languages is a further argument, seeing that now the skills of the translator and the many obstacles to translation are of similar importance to the (prose) skills of the actual author.

    In terms of style, some limits* must be set, especially regarding clarity and (to some degree) conciseness. However, the limits needed for a reasonable vehicle are not all that high (assuming that grammatical correctness has been reached), and any intelligent college graduate should already have the skills to exceed them.

    *There are many writers, including a disturbing proportion of bloggers, journalists, and Wikipedia editors, who are so awful that they should better not write at all.

  2. Verbosity* is a tricky issue. (And, in as far as it is negative, I am unusually poorly suited to throw the first stone.)

    *Here this word should be taken in a very wide sense, covering not just “needless words”, but also e.g. the inclusion of details of little importance, roundabout descriptions, unnecessary dialogue, … (No better generic term occurs to me.) Indeed, my focus below largely leaves the topics of prose and style, to focus on something more general.

    On the negative side, works like Pride and Prejudice show how verbosity can be taken too far, e.g. through turning the joy of reading into boredom or unduly increasing the time needed to read a work. Generally, text that does not serve a clear purpose, e.g. moving the story forward or giving nuance to a character, is often a negative and amounts to unnecessary filler. A good analogy is the low tempo and low content shown in many independent, low-budget, whatnot, movies—including those that begin with someone driving a car in silence for several minutes, then parking in silence, then walking to something in silence, with the first significant words uttered/events happening after five or more minutes. It would be better to condense the little information present* to a fraction of the time and just make the movie a little shorter—boring and artistic are not the same thing. Another analogy and partial example is the use of unnecessary adjectives and blurb in advertising language, as discussed in an older text on idiocies of ad writing (to which I might added the blanket advice to cut out any and all adjectives from an advertising text).

    *E.g. that a strategically placed photograph hints that the driver is married with two children, without the need to explicitly mention the fact—something that takes seconds, not minutes, to bring across. If worst comes to worst, doing a “Star Wars”-style introduction and skipping the car ride entirely would be the lesser evil… (Notably, if these car rides and whatnot are intended to serve another purpose, e.g. building atmosphere or tension, they usually fail equally badly at that. If they could pull it off, by all means—but it appears that they cannot.)

    On the positive side, it is often the small additional details that add charm to a work, that prevent it from being just a string of events, that give a marginal character that extra dash of individuality, etc. I have made some minor experiments with cutting out everything (apparently) non-essential from a text, and the result is so sterile and uninteresting that it makes a TV manuscript* a good read in comparison. The lesson is that, while any individual item that appears non-essential might actually be non-essential, removing too much kills the work.** While there is a point of “too much”, most amateurs are likely to fail clearly on the side of too little.*** There are even cases when something with no apparent major bearing on the overall plot/theme/whatnot cannot be cut without damaging the whole—consider e.g. “The Lord of the Rings” and the many detours and side-adventures. (Sometimes the road is more important than the apparent destination.) As a counter-point, I have usually found Stephen King more interesting as a short-story writer than as a novelist: While his ability to paint interesting portraits, give color to situations, find interesting developments, whatnot, might be his greatest strength, he often pushes it too far in his novels—and cutting another**** ten or twenty percent would be beneficial. Quality over quantity.

    *A TV manuscript, like most plays, is not intended to be read for entertainment—it is an instruction on how to create the entertainment. The difference might be less extreme than between a recipe and the finished food, but it goes somewhat in the same direction.

    **Also similar to a recipe: This-or-that ingredient might be foregoable entirely, another might only be needed in half the stated proportion, whatnot—individually. Remove/reduce all of them at once…

    ***My contacts with the works of amateurs have been very limited since I left school, but these contacts, my recollections from my school years, and my own preliminary dabblings with fiction all point in this direction. Indeed, it could be argued that this is the failure of the aforementioned independent movies, e.g. in that the car ride could have remained, had it been sufficiently filled with something interesting (and preferably relevant to plot, characters, whatnot).

    ****According to “On Writing”, he tries to cut ten percent from the first to the second draft.

    From another positive point of view, reality has details, and fiction with too little detail is unlikely to be realistic: Go for a walk in the forest and there will not just be trees around—there might not be a pack of wolves, but a squirrel, a few birds, and any number of insects is par for the course. (And a tree is not just a tall brown thing with small green things on it.) Take a train-ride and there will almost certainly be some unexpected event, even be it something as trivial as being asked for the time or someone falling over. Etc. Sometimes such details do more harm than good; sometimes they are exactly what is needed. (Do not ask me when: I am very far from having developed the detail judgment.)

    The trick is likely a mixture of finding the right middle ground and gaining a feel for which “extras” are merely unnecessary filler and which actually bring value to the text—add color, but do not lose tempo. Chances are that the drives for detail and relevance can be combined, e.g. in that an event written just for color is re-written to actually tell us something about the character(s).

  3. The use of various connecting words and “preambles”* is an aspect of my own (non-fiction) writing that has long left me ambivalent: On the one hand, they do serve a deliberate, connecting purpose that enhances the text in some regards; on the other, I am often left with the feeling of a lack of “smoothness” and of too many words that only have an auxiliary character—or even the fear that I would be annoyed when encountering such an amount in texts by others.

    *E.g. “However, […]”, “To boot, […]”, “Notably, […]”, “On the other hand, […]”, etc.

    Looking at almost all texts that I read, including by successful fiction writers, such words are used far less often, and much more of the job of making connections is left to the reader (who, judging by myself, is only very rarely impeded). My background in software development (where the text given to the computer should leave as little room for ambiguity as possible) makes me loath to change my habit, but chances are that I do take it too far even in non-fiction context—and in a fiction context, this habit could be deadly.

  4. I am often troubled by (and some of the previous item goes back to) the limited mechanisms for formal clues concerning the syntactic/semantic/whatnot groupings and intentions of a text. A recurring sub-issue is the use of commata, the comma being used in a great number of roles* in writing, which often forces me to deliberately hold back on my use, lest my texts be littered with them.

    *Including e.g. as a list separator, as a separator of main and subordinate clause, as an indicator of parenthesis, … The situation is made worse in my case, because different languages have different rules, and I am underway in three different languages. (For instance, according to English rules, a text might correctly include “the horse that won”. According to German rules, this would be “the horse, that won”. Also note the contrast to the English “the horse, which won”, with a slightly different meaning.)

    For instance, if we consider a sentence like “the brown horse ran fast and won by a large margin” there is a considerable amount of “parsing” left to the reader—and parsing that largely hinges on knowing what various words mean/can mean in context*. Grouping the individual words by structure, we might end up with “(the (brown horse)) ((ran fast) and (won (by (a (large margin))))”—while a sentence like “the horse and the mule […]” would result in the very different “((the horse) and (the mule)) […]”, giving some indication of how tricky the interpretation is.** (And such a mere grouping is far from a complete analysis—in fact, I relied on previous analysis, e.g. the identification of “horse” as a noun and “won” as a verb, when performing it.)

    *Not all words have a unique interpretation. Consider e.g. garden-path sentences or absurdities like “Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.”, which actually is a complete sentence with an intended meaning.

    **Humans rarely notice this, unless they are learning a new language or the sentence is unusually tricky, because these steps take place unconsciously.

    Fields like linguistics and computer science approach such problems through use of very different representations, notably tree structures, that are capable of removing related issues of ambiguity, needing* to know what every word means, etc., and I often wish that everyday language would use some similar type of representation. As is, I stretch the boundaries of what language allows to express my intention—to the point that often I catch myself using “e.g.” and “i.e.” more as interpunctuation (in an extended sense) than as formulation. (Which explains my arguable overuse: In my own mind, they register more like a comma or a semi-colon does, than like “for instance”.)

    *With some reservations for words recognizable in their role through various hints or context. The classic example in English is the “-ly” suffix as a (far from perfect) hint that a word is an adverb.

  5. As an interesting special case of the previous item, the use of commata and semi-colons is often contra-intuitive: If we view the comma (“,”), semi-colon (“;”), colon (”:”) and full-stop (“.”) as differently strong “stops”,* which is common and has some historical justification, then a sentence like “I found red, green, and yellow apples” simply does not make sense. We might argue that the separation of “red”, “green”, and “yellow” is warranted; however, at the same time we want them to be (individually or collectively) attached to both “I found” and “apples”—which is simply not the case if the commata are viewed as stops.**

    *Here we see another case of characters doing double duty: Among the multiple roles of quotation marks we have both the signification of a literal string and of something metaphorical or approximate. Different signs for these roles, the role as an actual quote, the “scare quote” role, and whatever else might apply, would be neat. (Then again, most people would likely be over-challenged with such a system, and it would degenerate back into something less differentiated—a problem that might kill quite a few potential improvements.)

    **But note that this problem disappears with appropriate grouping, like “I found (red, green, and yellow) apples.”, which would be one way out. A better way, disconnected from the interpretation as stops, is to see the sentence as an abbreviation of the cumbersome “I found read apples and I found green apples and I found yellow apples”.

    In some cases, the problem could be limited by the prior introduction of a stronger stop*; however, this would often lead to awkward results and/or be incompatible with established use. For instance, “examples of apple colors: red, green, yellow” would be OK (in a context where this is stylistically tolerable), but “examples of apples colors are: red, green, yellow” is extremely odd. This solution is similar awkward for the original example (“I found: red, green, and yellow apples”) and leaves the original problem unsolved—“I found” is now offset, but “apples” is not. We might get by with “I found: red, green, and yellow: apples”, but this would be entirely unprecedented, hard to combine with any current interpretation of “:”, and better solved (assuming that an extension is suggested) by use of one of the bracket types**.

    *Note that the examples provided are somewhat different when “:” is viewed as a stop and when viewed as a “list introductor” or similar.

    **For instance, the scripting language Bash uses “{}” for a similar effect: The command “echo 1{a,b,c}2” results in the output “1a2 1b2 1c2”. (However, “()”, “[]”, and “<>” would be equally conceivable. Other bracket types exist, but would be problematic with current keyboards.)

Excursion on “Catch-22”:
A draft extended the mention of Kafka with “Joseph Heller, whose ‘Catch-22’ I am currently reading, appears to be a similar English example”. If this book is considered “high literature”, it is indeed a good example; however, I am highly skeptical to this classification: Apart from a few good laughs and the eponymous “catch”, the first hundred-or-so pages has had very little to offer of anything—and give the impression that the author has just sat down by the keyboard, written down whatever occurred to him in the moment, and then sent the resulting draft to be published. There are, incidentally, some Kafkaesque setups, but I would recommend Kafka, himself, to those looking for the Kafkaesque. It might be that the book makes more sense to someone who has lived in a similar setting or it might be that the remainder is better; however, my current feel is that this is yet another book that has gained its reputation due to popularity—not literary quality.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 29, 2018 at 10:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] writing a text dealing with verbosity (among other things), I have dabbled with Wesnoth*, which well illustrates the problems with undue […]


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