Posts Tagged ‘rhetoric’

On Writing by Stephen King

September 1, 2013

Natalie Reid made me aware of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft in her academic writing class. I was reminded of it when Cal Newport reported that he re-reads On Writing every few years in order to reorient himself to the reality of becoming better at creative endavours.

KingOnWritingI force myself to take an interest in writing as writing is ultimately what I do for a living (I do a lot of other things, like programming, reading, and thinking, but in the end I always have to write it down). I hoped reading On Writing would be a useful investment.

In the introduction, King reiterates one of Strunk and White‘s rules for good writing: Omit needless words. Unfortunately, I find a lot of needless words in King’s book. But he should get the benefit of the doubt; he never set out to write a book about writing in general, useful for all writers (I presume). He writes a memoir of his life as a writer, what shaped him in the early years, and how he goes about it now (or then: On Writing was published in 2000). If I were to put the blame anywhere, it would rest with Natalie Reid, who mentioned it in her class. By doing that, she effectively suggested it for those in the audience who want to push further than suffering through her lectures (I usually suffer in lectures). Perhaps I read too much into her mentioning the book, but she emphsized again and again that she could only cover so much in her lectures and that her book containted so much more. When she then, after obviously leaving out a lot of valuable material, still chose to mention King, one can only take it as a strong suggestion to read King’s book. The problem is, I find King’s book of almost no value as an academic writer (and Reid’s class was aimed at academic writing). If I were a King fan, I would certainly enjoy the biographic material and all the references to his own work, how it came to him, and how he worked with it. Also, if I had aspirations to write fiction I could perhaps benefit from King’s book. Alas, I am only an academic writer (and an amateur blogger in the dark corners of my spare time), and, again, King has little to offer.

It is strange though. After King finishes his autobiographical part about how he grew up and all that, he pretends to write a textbook about fiction writing, at least a textbook about King-fiction-writing. He is very serious (apart from the somewhat informal language), discusses one issue at the time, and, I imagine, presentes a comprehensive treatment of King-fiction-writing. But, he fails to make his part-autobiography-part-textbook usable. The book is divided into separate parts. The first part is autobiographical and consists of 38 numbered sections dispersed over approximately 100 pages. (How he conceives or puts into the thirty seven breaks is illusive to me, but not really important.) Then follows a part called What Writing Is, which is an interesting section where King discusses what he thinks writing really is (he thinks of writing as telepathy). What Writing Is consist of only one part and is only a few pages long. Next is a section called Toolbox that again consists of several numbered parts. And here is where the logic of the part-textbook breaks down. For a textbook to be useful, it should be possible to re-locate a particular section one remembers reading but cannot fully recall. But unless one writes down a content list upon the first reading, it is impossible to relocate any section without risking to skim much of the book. There isn’t even an index (nor a crude content list) in King’s book. Now, while I disagree with a lot of what King writes about writing, I find it almost provoking to read his textbookish prose when I know his book does not function as a textbook.

Cal Newport emphasizes how King went through a lot of deliberate practice; he wrote a lot, before his eventual breakthrough.  Deliberate practice is part of Newport’s recipe for success. While not directly in conflict with Newport, I find King’s metaphor for how he comes up with his stories somewhat at odds with Newport’s ideas. King considers his stories as fossils buried in the (metaphorical) ground, which he excavates and liberates through his writing. King uses the metaphor repeatedly and it seems to be fixed and clear in his mind. I forgot to mark off where (turns out I didn’t: on page 163 he writes “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.”), but I am sure King suggests somewhere that the story (the fossil) exists outside and independent of himself, like a real fossil in an unreal world. King at least hints towards the idea here:

When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it […] is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around [p. 159*].

While I think it an odd metaphor, I also find it difficult to reconcile with the Newport-idea of deliberate practice. Perhaps you can train at metaphorical excavation; not sure how. The excavation of stories metaphor reminds me of a book by the Norwegian author Dag Solstad. The book, hardly called a novel, is called Armand V.  Footnotes to an unexcavated novel (my translation). It contains footnotes to an unwritten novel. The format of it certainly makes it a disturbing read. One of the footnotes are over fifty pages long, if memory serves me right. Whether Solstad has ever read King’s On Writing, I don’t know, but he certainly could have; Armand V. was published in 2006.

My review is already overly long, but I’d like to discuss some of King’s writing advice. On vocabulary, he writes:

[T]he basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to you mind, if it is appropriate and colorful [p. 118, his italics].

But what if it is not appropriate or, most likely, not colorful? King says little on it.

While Newport entertains the idea that practice is really what counts and that talent has relatively little to do about success, King seems to disagree, and this is part of why I find Newport’s endorsement puzzling. King puts writers into four categories (I think), from bad, through competent and good to great, and the classification is seemingly well-defined and mostly outside our control:

[M]y basic premise: if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one. If you’re good and want to be great … [forget about it] [p. 144].


Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate-four to six hours a day, every day-will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them [p. 150, his italics].

Newport would not agree, and neither to I. To become a virtuoso, for example, one has to go through hundreds if not thousands of hours of technical and repetitive training that I doubt is particularly fun before you really master it; perhaps years down the road.

Another thing I do not like about King’s textbook approach is lack of clarity. After a section where he discusses usage of different tools, symbolism in particular, he starts the next section in the following way: “The same things are true of theme” (p. 200). What things? All the things he went over in the previous section? The things he went over in the last paragraph? What if the reader had a break in the reading between the two sections such that the things discussed in the previous section are unclear in the reader’s mind? This example is but one out of many cases where King, who ought to advocate clear writing, fails to deliver the necessary clarity of a textbook.

Another example of where King fails to be clear, where he lets his creativity get the better of him, is when he discusses when you are ready to re-read the first draft of a novel:

When you come to the correct evening […], take your manuscript out of the drawer. If it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping, you’re ready [p. 212].

But what if it doesn’t look like an alien relic? What if it looks like a pile of paper? What if it doesn’t really look like anything because it is kept in electronic form? This particular advice on when to re-read the first draft is nothing but useless. Useless. (UPDATE: I know it is just a metaphor for foreign and perhaps the advice is not completely useless, but what about omitting those needless words, King?)

Well, shame is on me. King almost died when he wrote On Writing, and to criticize him is, I am sure, next to blasphemy. He was run over by a car and wrote the second half of the book while recovering. King goes on about the accident and his recovery at length after he finishes his textbook-part of the book. I am sure no one had the heart to tell King the truth about his book after what happened, and I probably shouldn’t either. But, I am a useless and heartless you-know-what, I’m sorry.

* Page numbers refer to the 2010 paperback edition.

UPDATE 2: It struck me that the stories as fossils metaphor suggests that inspiration happens by divine intervention and has little to do with practice. Either the fossil is there or it isn’t. King writes nothing to suggest otherwise, at least. King does emphasize practice through extensive reading and writing, but more in order to command the technical part of writing; controlling the language, tone, perspective vocabulary–stuff covered in the textbook part of King’s book. How Newport embraces King’s book when inspiration depends on divine intervention is another thing I find difficult to understand.

Quote of the Day (and some more)

April 9, 2013

I somewhat arbitrarily picked up Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers by Jacques Barzun in a used book store. At the beginning of the book, there are some great quotes. The best one is perhaps the following from C.S. Lewis:

I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate to the left or right, the reader will most certainly go into it.

Requires the slightest idea about regular behavior of sheep, but does not have that? Barzun also offers a definition of the perhaps elusive term rhetoric (as many words, it holds so much [to me] that a definition is difficult to put down precisely):

Rhetoric is the craft of setting down words and marks right; or again: Rhetoric shows you how to put words together so that the reader not simply may but must grasp your meaning (p. 2, revised edition; his italics).

Simple and direct, I presume, but Barzun still needed two tries. I think I prefer the latter. Barzun writes sensibly about writing (read well, for example, perhaps the best advice), but feels somewhat outdated in places. For example, he makes a good case for the senselessness of workaholic (derived from alcoholic that comes from al-cohol, worka-holic does thus not work because -holic has no meaning), but I perceive workaholic as established. It is, for example, listed on my dear (Simple & Direct was published in 1975; the revised edition is from 1985, and some 30-40 years should not matter for a book on rhetoric; Strunk’s Elements of Style, more than 100 years since the first edition, I think, is for example still highly regarded.)  Nevertheless, I find Simple & Direct useful and interesting and hope to post more from and on it when time permits (progress is slow, as always).

Dancing with Professors: An Essay on Academic Prose & Rhetoric by Patricia Nelson Limerick

September 7, 2010

Robert Kozinetz gave a really interesting talk in Bodø last week; he talked about how to develop ideas and how to make them matter. During the talk, he brought up Dancing with Professors; an article from the New York Times (I think it was) discussing troublesome academic prose. The article is written by Patricia Nelson Limerick and is from way back (2001, perhaps), but is still relevant, of course (old habits die hard, I guess).

While we waste our time fighting over ideological conformity in the scholarly world, horrible writing remains a far more important problem. For all their differences, most right-wing scholars and most left-wing scholars share a common allegiance to a cult of obscurity. Left, right and center all hide behind the idea that unintelligible prose indicates a sophisticated mind. The politically correct and the politically incorrect come together in the violence they commit against the English language.

The dancing comes in when Limerick claims (perhaps rightfully so) that those who become professors are those nobody wanted to dance with in high school; you know, the shy, fearful, and lonely guy in the corner:

Professors are often shy, timid and fearful people, and under those circumstances, dull, difficult prose can function as a kind of protective camouflage. When you write typical academic prose, it is nearly impossible to make a strong, clear statement. The benefit here is that no one can attack your position, say you are wrong or even raise questions about the accuracy of what you have said, if they cannot tell what you have said. In those terms, awful, indecipherable prose is its own form of armor, protecting the fragile, sensitive thoughts of timid souls.

After a couple of (dreary) parables and sidetracks, Limerick returns to how academic prose is hindered from improvement: Professors think they are supposed to teach bad writing in grad school:

This is a very well-established pattern, and it is the ruination of scholarly activity in the modern world. Many professors who teach graduate students think that one of their principal duties is to train students in the conventions of academic writing.I do not believe that professors enforce a standard of dull writing on graduate students in order to be cruel. They demand dreariness because they think that dreariness is in the students’ best interests. Professors believe that a dull writing style is an academic survival skill because they think that is what editors want, both editors of academic journals and editors of university presses. What we have here is a chain of misinformation and misunderstanding, where everyone thinks that the other guy is the one who demands, dull, impersonal prose.

The lesson? Think more like a carpenter than, say, an artist:

Ego is, of course, the key obstacle here. As badly as most of them write, professors are nonetheless proud and sensitive writers, resistant in criticism. But even the most desperate cases can be redeemed and persuaded to think of writing as a challenging craft, not as existential trauma. A few years ago, I began to look at carpenters and other artisans as the emotional model for writers. A carpenter, let us say, makes a door for a cabinet. If the door does not hang straight, the carpenter does not say, “I will not change that door; it is an expression of my individuality; who cares if it will not close?” Instead, the carpenter removes the door and works on it until it fits. That attitude, applied to writing, could be our salvation. If we thought more like carpenters, academic writers could find a route out of the trap of ego and vanity. Escaped from that trap, we could simply work on successive drafts until what we have to say is clear.

The Rhetoric of Climate Progress

February 16, 2009

It may seem that I’m obsessed with Climate Progress nowadays, and that may be true to some extent. Climate Progress is concerned with the most important thing; the sustainability of our way of life and of the environment. I’m not sure, howere, that Climate Progress always helps the case; I want to discuss the rhetoric of Climate Progress.

The rhetoric on Climate Progress does not convince. Convincing is exactly a trace of good writing and of effective rhetoric. Good writing should let people think by themselves by coherent arguments and supporting facts, and not descend to cheap characteristics and half-truths.

 In some posts (Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1, Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”), Joe Romm discusses why climate scientists have a tendency to loose debates against climate change deniers. There he argues that a common strategy of climate change deniers is to produce untrue statements and present incoherent or illogical arguments leading to flawed conclusions. The best response to such arguing, according to Joe Romm, is to pick up on it, denie the untrue statements and reveal the flaws in the incoherent and illogical arguments. I agree. If such a strategy is followed with success it should not be necessary also to come up with cheap characteristics and other poor ways to discredit people. I think one loses respect and attention to ones arguments then.

I am sorry that Joe Romm does not take the opportunity to argue in a polite manner with convincing and coherent writing when he commands one of the most important climate blogs nowadays, but sees it necessary to sprinkle it with cheap characteristics and speculative halftruths as he does in his voodoo economics series, for example (Do Econmists Help Fight Climate Change?).

Related posts:

Joe Romm on Rhetoric & the Climate

January 18, 2009

Even though he has showed a negative attitued towards economists, Joe Romm has a lot of interesting posts on his blog, Climate Progess. Today, I stumbled over some posts on rhetoric and how the typical scientists lack of training in, and command of, rhetoric favors climate change deniers.

The first post, Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Joe explains some of the basic features of rhetoric and then moves on to discuss how the way of most scientists inhibit them in communicating efficiently with the public:

Most scientists do not like to repeat themselves because it implies that they aren’t sure of what they are saying. Scientists like to focus on the things that they don’t know, since that is the cutting edge of scientific research. So they don’t keep repeating the things that they do know, which is one reason the public and the media often don’t hear from scientists about the strong areas of agreement on global warming.

He also mentions an article written by Jared Diamond called “Scientists who do communicate effectively with the public often find their colleagues responding with scorn, and even punishing them in ways that affect their careers.” This reminded me of an astronomer that has received a lot of attention here in Norway over the years. He has contributed to bring astronomy and, more generally, physics to the public attention. Apparently, he wasn’t very popular among his colleagues and in the end they kicked him out of the University. (The story is told here, in Norwegian.)

In the second post, Joe discusses why a ‘smart talker’ never win a debate against a(n) ‘(apparently) straight talker.’ The obvious is to talk so your listeners understand you. The not-so-obvious is to use narrative tricks to get attention and sympathy from your listeners. Joe demonstrates a few such rhetorical tricks from an inpressive range of sources; from the ancient Greeks to the president election debates in the U.S.

I do realize the importance of knowing rhetoric, not only to win discussions, but also as a means towards producing good science. I try to read some rhetoric along my studies into resource economics; rhetoric often ends up in the background, however.