Friday, August 14, 2009

Overzealous Concision: Density

This article under its subhead "Embrace prose and avoid terse [read, dense] writing" describes what I mean by "density":

This piece of advice is a reaction against the Bourbaki style ... [of explaining] as little as possible in order to give the tightest presentation possible. ... [I]t is also very hard to read ... an altogether unpleasant experience unless you already know the subject matter and just want to review, not really learn a new subject. ¶ ... Explain ideas fully and clearly. ... [D]o not shy from writing more in order to explain more.

Writing more to explain more is advice unlikely to help a lawyer, who is prolix more often than dense. Writing can be at once prolix and dense, but dense writers usually strive for expository elegance, like the Bourbakis in math. That inverse relationship between prolixity and density — only a trend — shouldn't obscure the different causes of the two mistakes. Nor should the observation that dense writing uses too few words and prolix writing too many. The prolix writer overexplains and the dense writer underexplains, but each is a symptom of a different kind of problem, not the same problem or the opposite one.

Prolixity is actually related to redundancy: prolixity amounts to partial redundancy. A redundant expression repeats identical information; prolix verbiage adds what is practically irrelevant, leaving the reader with nearly identical information. The redundant writer is blind to the repetition, as the prolix writer is to the near repetition. Prolixity comes from a failure of linguistic insight.

Density comes neither from failed linguistic insight nor, of course, its overabundance. Rather, it involves failed psychological insight, in that the dense writer doesn't take the reader's perspective. Density is audience relative: the optimal density for experts is higher than for novices; but density's audience relativity isn't as great as you might think. For an audience of experts, a writer will forgo defining some technical terms, but explanations that organize and activate relevant knowledge help every reader.

(See also related entry Misguided Concision: Terseness.)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Unique style: expressive or substantive

Often in discussions about writing excellence, the point is made that the best writers have a unique style. Little is said to describe the contours of this style. Style has been the subject of previous entries, which define styles as tradeoff patterns among writing Virtues, but the unique styles don't mean tradeoffs skilled writers purposefully modify. "Unique style" refers to something else, but what?

Some treatments, sporting a touch of New Ageism, call this unique style the writer's "voice." These authors promptly add that voice identifies a writer like fingerprints identify ordinary persons. So is it like a voice or like a fingerprint? They're not the same. Only a universal truth about fingerprints, the absolute uniqueness of each, lends them the least interest to most of us. We usually don't even bother to form an opinion about whether one's fingerprint is attractive, more-than-usually unique, or in other manner worthy. Not so with voice. While no aspirant lands a job because of the aesthetics of his fingerprint, the aural media demand vocal qualities, innate and trained. Some voices are more attractive than others, and their attractiveness is independent of the utterance's content, the assessment part objective, part subjective.

Is a writer's unique style a voice or a fingerprint? Surely if this unique style exists, it resembles voice. Unlike a fingerprint, it obtrudes itself; we can't avoid the writer's style. If in contradiction, unique style turns out to be some subtle, technical variance, then we may avoid noticing it — hardly surprising, as it becomes irrelevant. Rather than being like voice, style would have the uniqueness of handwriting in a future civilization where none use this skill.

To the contrary, style obviously matters, yet seems impossible to define in a way keeping the supposed unique and involuntary character. Unique style is supposed to be an expressive quality that becomes more pronounced as the writer skilled. If unique writing style existed, the best writers would suffer scorn for freakishness, not only win acclaim for uniqueness. Any distinctive "voice" can annoy, will annoy someone. Yet, we find no literary critics who simply despise Shakespeare. Shakespeare's distinctiveness, we can conclude, doesn't derive from a unique writing style.

Opposed to these expressive accounts of unique style, an author's unique "style" should be conceived as intellectual style, not anything inhering in sentence or paragraph composition. Writers come to identify their intellectual strengths and learn to exploit them. When a writer settles on a style, he adopts a set of approaches to intellectual (or literary) problems.