Back to the future

In The Web and democracy, Web writing on August 14, 2010 at 2:00 pm

You might recall that I’m cynical about the quality of much online content (see Is this what it is like?) and, of course, I’m not unique in this respect. Now,  from my own, unfocused surfing,  links my classmates and others have given me, and my reflections on my history with the Web, I’m starting to feel a bit better, and a bit more ‘in control’ – if this makes me paranoid, then so be it.

This week’s readings have helped with this. One of the common threads in all of the readings was that concision is key. Why is this so reassuring? Well, for a start, there is nothing new about this advice. Remember Strunk? For the uninitiated, here is an extract from his 1918 treatise, Elements of Style (since updated).

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Many expressions in common use violate this principle:
the question as to whether whether (the question whether)
there is no doubt but that no doubt (doubtless)
used for fuel purposes used for fuel
he is a man who he
in a hasty manner hastily
this is a subject which this subject
His story is a strange one. His story is strange.

Second, there are many examples of this sort of writing on the Web, Catherine Caine’s article among them. I love decluttering text almost as much as I like throwing out household junk. My friends will tell you there’s nothing I love more than picking up cliches, tautologies and skips in semantic logic (mostly they find this amusing too, until I turn on them). On the topic of linguistic redundancy, no-one is better than Don Watson. He now has a website, quite a disappointing effort, but well worth a visit nonetheless. Better still, buy his books and devour them, or simply google him to find articles like this.

I also liked the advice regarding brevity. Roy Peter Clark’s idea that any topic can be tackled in 800 words is great. (The article is referenced in Jonathan Dube’s article, but the link doesn’t work, so here is the shortened version, abridged by Clark himself. How fitting! ) This too is not a particularly newfangled idea: remember the tiny essays you were asked to write as undergrads? Lecturers would insist that if you could distil your thoughts into, say, 1000 words, you had really come to understand your topic.

So why does this old-fashioned advice, common to all this week’s readings, reassure me? Well, it makes me believe there is some consensus about what good writing is. It indicates that despite the rubbish we’re faced with, many of us still have the critical faculty needed to weed it out.

On the other hand, something about this advice bothers me.

Do we all want to write like Hemingway?

We should be vigilant against tautologies and other redundancies, but I’m wary of  too much decluttering. After reading McEwan, an economical writer, a few weeks ago, I’m back to Thomas Hardy, one of my all-time favourites. I don’t think Hardy’s a great stylist: I don’t gasp over the beauty of his sentence construction. In fact, with his distinctive nineteenth-century punctuation, I’m often forced to re-read sentences to find the point. This being said, he can really tell a story. He’s a bit like the Stieg Larsson of the romantic period.

Yes, Catherine, the impulse to shorten sentences and remove idle words should be encouraged, but not everyone wants to write like Hemingway, even if they can. Sometimes these short, sharp posts, with their one-sentence paragraphs and self-satisfied economy, simply annoy me. If the Web is truly democratic, perhaps we should all be looking to find our own way of expressing ourselves? (Of course, those looking to sell something on the Web would do well to heed her advice.)

Today’s musing brings me full circle: as much as I’d like to encounter only quality – a wish that is only going to result in my turning off the Web altogether – I’d much prefer to develop my own Web filter, and be happy in the fact that, however long and ungainly their sentences, and however vacuous their chatter, people are simply expressing themselves. Which I guess is the point of Web 2.0.

  1. This is a really interesting point- you’re right, if the internet is supposed to be a democratic public forum, then you should express yourself in your own style, rather than conform to what you’ve been told is the right style.

    The main issue I think is who your audience is- if people do really read on the web in the ‘F’ pattern, then you need to think about who you are wanting to read your work, and how you can accommodate that.

    I guess it’s just a matter of trying to find a middle ground, where you can use the language and sentence structures you prefer, but apply enough of the principles of ‘good web writing’ so that people will actually read it.

    It’s a tough one I think… but the best writers are always breaking the rules, so go for it!

    • Hi missbec,

      Thanks for your response. It probably comes down to: are you writing primarily as self-expression, or are you writing to be read? Either way, this advice is useful, but only in the latter case is it essential.


      • There’s also the issue of reputation. It’s like Herald Sun vs The Age. Language plays into credibility. People might like reading your newspaper because it’s easy to read, but everyone has standards to maintain.

  2. Hi Jen,

    Great post about an interesting topic. I think in a lot of respects, determining whether something is good writing or bad writing can be quite subjective; different people will see it differently. Some people might like rhetorical pieces appealing to emotion, where others who like logical, pared back thought might not like such pieces because they tend to lack this approach – just as some people like Matthew Reilly, whereas I can’t read him without wanting to poke my eye out with a stick! And this is a good thing really, because if we all thought the same about what constituted ‘good’ writing, then as you say, we would all end up sounding the same in our own writing and things would be very boring!

    I’m probably thinking about all this more in the context of fiction than web publishing, because I always used to wonder when I was younger how certain writing was almost universally considered to be good and certain authors were considered to have written ‘classics’, while other writing was considered ‘bad’ or sub-par. I always felt there were certain works I had to like – because they were established classics – and if I said I didn’t like them, I must be illustrating inferior tastes. I wondered whether there was criteria for good writing that everyone else had and which I wasn’t privy to!

    Doing the editing course has been a great eye-opener, because now I am aware that there are a lot of conventions of writing/things to look for (i.e. use of cliches, redundancies etc.) which do indicate whether a piece of writing is strong or weak. But I do ultimately think a lot of it does come down to the individual audience; the writing that one person thinks is trashy might be another person’s treasure! I guess if a writer knows their audience and writes with them in mind, they have a good chance of succeeding. But I do agree that on the web, more than anywhere else, it is important to be concise and get the point across as concisely and effectively as possible (given the way we know audiences tend to read on the net).

    On a different note – we must be reading some of the same books lately, what with Ian McEwan and now Thomas Hardy; I’ve just recently read Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. A few people have said to me that they’ve found it hard to get into Hardy, but I must say I really enjoyed them – though agree with you about having to read some of the sentences twice to get the point!

    • Hi Maren,

      Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I agree that there’s no accounting for taste, but also that good writing tends to have common elements: a strong narrative, for example, seems to be essential, and not just in fiction. Re. Hardy, I’m reading A Laodicean. It’s full of intrigue and well worth a read. I also loved The Trumpet-Major. Both are far lighter than Tess or Jude; after reading those, you’d be inclined to think Hardy can do only tragedy, but not so. The links I’ve given are to Project Gutenberg free downloads.


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