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Writing Methods and Observations

There are two types of writing: technical and literary. The difference is that technical writing attempts to leave as little as possible to imagination, and literature attempts to bring about as much imagination as possible. Good technical writing has no ambiguities. The best way to learn technical writing is to read technical writing and learn the standard conventions and tricks. Technical writing is interesting insofar as its subject is interesting. As long as the writing is coherent and not overly long, if it is on a valuable subject the reader is satisfied. Hopefully this piece is a good example. Literature is entirely different. Every word must be just so. What follows are my thoughts on the subject, which I at least find valuable.

Good writing begins with good thinking. However, thinking and writing are two separate disciplines and though the former is far more important I am today concerned with the latter. Writing is the translation of thought into written words. The skill of writing is how accurately the attempted thought was expressed. As with all skill, whatever is done skillfully is not necessarily good. Skill with a knife can be used to carve furniture and it can be used to murder. So before attempting to write down thoughts, first be sure those thoughts have worth. Skillfully depicted worthless thoughts are unfortunately still worthless.

The translation of thinking into written words is deceptively difficult. Thought exists, at the very least, in terms of the senses. I would if asked rank my external (as in excluding organ function) senses and abilities most important to least important as: feeling and movement, sight, hearing and speech, smell, and finally taste. The construction of my thoughts reflect this. My thoughts are mostly touch-feeling based (for instance, imagining what it feels like to be and to move as the object I am considering), then visual, then audio and language, then smell and taste. So language is only one part. To make matters worse, "touch-feeling" is not simply one type of information but five (spatial, texture, pressure, temperature, and the state of muscles). Furthermore, though it is a subject of another day, I would wager there is more involved in thought than merely the configuration of sense data (what is ordering and configuring?). It is not hard to see that managing to convey a full thought through a sequence of symbols takes incredible skill.

And so writing begins when a thought is, regardless of what it is about and how it exists in the mind, decided to be worthwhile enough to make a record of it. But do not be fooled, the first process is by far more lengthy, laborious, and tiresome. Many writers think their whole life only to write a single thing truly worthwhile, many others never write anything truly worthwhile at all. Fortunately for the would-be writer, writing is a useful tool of thought. Usually this latter type of writing is called "writing-for-yourself", and the other type called "writing-for-other-people", but I will call the first type explorational writing and the second type expressional writing.

Good writers begin with explorational writing and are completely unconcerned with expressional writing. This is so because they are concerned with trying to think well, not trying to be understood by other people for the sake of trying to be understood (good writers seek first understanding), and so through years and years of effort in thinking, of which writing is only one tool, they finally understand a few things well. Only then will they consider trying to express what they have found, if they are thinking well. So we begin with the skill of explorational writing. However, I do not mean to say they will do absolutely no expressional pieces in this time. A letter to a friend here a criticism of the local magistrate there. But overwhelmingly the good writer explores in solitude.

Explorational writing is if not ugly, cumbersome and disjointed. Above all unfinished. Finishing explorational writing is a waste of time. That means don’t correct spelling, grammar, or add in left out points and transitions that one knows one understands. Move on to the next idea. If ever you do explore an idea and decide it is worthwhile enough to express, making it primp and proper is a trivial matter that is only a matter of a bit of time (in fact, most likely someone will do it for you). An Old Man and the Sea with bad spelling and bad grammar is worth an Old Man and the Sea minus the cost in effort or funds to correct the spelling and grammar, which is insignificant compared to the value of the idea and the amount of effort in thinking it up and refining it. A worthless idea, no matter how long and no matter how correct in spelling and grammar is still worthless.

However, a good writer’s first concern is ideas anyway, and so it would not occur to the good writer that properness is important unless a good idea worth expressing is decided upon.

Explorational writing is exactly that, an exploration. It begins when you are trying to understand something, and it ends when you think you know what you are talking about. A successful exploration leads to more things to explore than you started with—that is why the initial exploration is left unfinished. When your ship is wrecked on an island you do not study in depth the shore and the sand, and then move on to the closest tree noting its exact height, weight, volume, age and so on. You explore the first things only insofar as it allows you to explore the further things, which of course means you must explore enough and expend enough effort to make a shelter and have a source of food and so forth. You cannot explore further if your internal organs shut down. In thought it is the same way, you must spare enough thought to keeping yourself alive and in good condition. Many have become feeble and put their surroundings in disarray through reckless exploration.

In exploration, only concentrate on writing style if you are exploring writing style. If you ask, "Can I write in a style that has these properties." For instance, I explored much in what I called "connotative writing", which is writing that conveys a very precise message distinct from the denotative meaning. What I was specifically interested in was seeing if it was possible to not have any denotative meaning at all, in themselves are arrayed nonsensically, and yet still convey a meaning through the sequence of connotation.

Another style I explored was fiction without conflict. I had noticed that in most fictional pieces the characters are defined by the conflict they are in. Without the conflict they would be entirely uninteresting and purposeless people. So, I wondered whether this was necessary, was it possible to write fiction without conflict, in the traditional literary sense—not in the sense that opening a door to go to the lew could be viewed as resolving a conflict.

But I mention style only in order to show that there is nothing off limits to the explorer. Most of my exploration was in trying to understand the nature of existence. I would consider something for days to years, then when I deemed I had come to some conclusion I would try to write out the principle. In so doing I would encounter all the nuances that seem so trivial in the minds eye and so difficult to put on paper. To incorporate the prosaic beauty of the relationships required a much more precise understanding of the principle I was considering, usually an understanding of an even more general principle. And the process would repeat itself.

But regardless of what I am trying to explore my method is always the same. First I simply go. I go until I cannot go anymore. I go as fast as possible. As soon as I am confident I can write down the idea I am on I go to the next. I go until the writing breaks down, which occurs when I have written a large amount of words on an idea without seeing an end. I then stop and consider the problem I encountered. It is very important to look for when a piece of writing is breaking down, and not to continue writing pages and pages about the same small thing. Is my understanding accurate? Or do I go in circles due to a subtle contradiction? If my understanding is accurate, is there a way to write what I am trying to write, or is it somehow intrinsically unwritable? I think about it for some time, and if I solve the problem I write down the solution (the concise form of the relationship I am considering) and continue until the next problem. I am finished when I am confident I could express the matter if I put the effort into it, and I can clearly see in the mind how such a piece would function. If I think the idea has enough merit to express I restart in expressional writing mode. However, usually I conclude the whole matter is only a small idea in a much bigger one, and I go onto to explore more of the whole.

There are no rules and regulations. It is pure exploration. If it had already been written there would be no need to write it, only to read it and agree. And indeed, most ideas you will think up you will find have been thought up before and expertly embedded into the written word. That is why it is important to read much and only write on matters too specific that if they have been written about before you will not find them, or on matters which, after research, no one yet seems to have written about. Not for the sake of writing, but for the sake of thinking. The writing is simply the map one makes as one travels. Like any map one makes for oneself it is difficult if not impossible for anyone else to understand. As long as the one who wrote it understands, and the objects come clearly to the understanding at a glance, then it is a good map. A map of ideas.

It is when one wishes for someone else to understand this map that one needs to make it clear in a clear structure. One switches to expressional writing. The first task is try to organize the haphazard idea map one was left with after the initial exploration. Unlike a map of a physical journey it is not always obvious which idea comes first and the others after it. Ideas tend to work as a harmonious whole, not in a linear sequence. So, the first step is to read over the initial explorational writing but instead of simply bring ideas to mind, read with a critical eye, as if you had not read it before. Some parts may sound good, others sound bad, some arguments made eloquently, some brutally, some things are missing or presumed, others appear too much.

It is time to put down all the ideas that may be missing. This task I liken to packing for a journey. One brings out and lays out on the floor everything one could possibly use, knowing that only a fraction will be taken in the end. If the explorational writing has any merit simply fill in as much as possible, otherwise restart from scratch at a much slower pace writing until one is sure one has every relevant idea. Start with the most important and then work in details until one has nothing else to say. However, one does not write out all these ideas in full, just enough to know at a glance what the idea is. One does not at yet know which ideas one will use and which will be discarded, or how exactly the ideas will be presented. Do no waste labour fleshing out an idea that is liable to be tossed away or changed in representation.

The task of then culling out all the frivolous or unnecessary information is something that is done throughout the rest of the writing process to the very end. Just like packing for a long journey every object must be carefully weighed and considered against every other object over the entire preparation. Take too much and one will tire under the weight. Take too little and one may encounter an unsolvable problem. Always remember to look with a critical eye and ask whether the word, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter is something totally necessary to the understanding of the idea or if it redundant. The explorational piece was a map of a journey, the expressional is an attempt at the journey itself.

Some useful principles to try are: Leave judgments to the reader; if you are writing about something that you think is this, write it concisely and let the reader judge whether it is or is not. Neither supply self commentary. Self commentary usually exists in the form of trying to justify what one has or will write is also in virtually all cases weak. If it is justified to write, it is justified to write. If you have to write down the justification of writing it, then you have to write down the justification of writing that, and so on ad absurdum.

There are many books on what is weak writing and things to try to avoid. However, what these how to write well books often lack is the writing method to begin with. You cannot begin to remove and to criticize before you have something to criticize and remove from. Be clear however that it the ability to not take certain cosmetics and nostalgic pieces, and only taking those things necessary that distinguishes the swift dependable traveler from the frustratingly slow. So at all point in time consider what you have and what you need.

So considering all this it is time to turn a sequence of ideas into literature. Go until there is break down. If it is a break down in ideas—one clearly did not have as much understanding as one thought—switch back to explorational writing mode. If it is a literary break down then one has encountered the first thing which is difficult to write.

For me, a literary break down usually results from not being able to express arguments I take for granted and have never tried to express before, or in general terms, not being able to go from A to B. It is this not seeing how to go from A to B with ease which is the general form of most literary break downs. One is here, and one wishes to go there. In explorational writing this would not be a problem, one would simply go there—at least, not a problem insofar it is true one can go there, that it is a valid inference or chronology. Resolving these "transitions", as they are usually called, is a totally foreign skill for the would-be writer. Often, in trying to resolve a transition a completely new way of structuring the entire piece suggests itself, and one starts over from scratch.

If one manages to get to the end of the piece, and one looks over to find a sequence of useful ideas arranged in a reasonable fashion it is now time to condense and refine each idea. It is now that one considers one’s readership. One wishes to explain one’s thoughts just long enough for the reader to follow. Any shorter and the ideas are not discernible, any longer and the piece is boring.

Always trust to the readers imagination. If the reader cannot imagine they would have no use of reading. And so each piece of writing must be a complete world. Through these possibilities and the imagination the reader creates a full experience totally removed from sitting and looking at a page. Imagination is the most important principle.

Next in importance is to incorporate opposites. Nothing boggles the mind more, or stirs the imagination closer to exhaustion than attempting to resolve what seems a contradiction, a paradox, or incongruity. The contradiction can be between anything, the paradox is that they are both contained in the same thing. Opposites also contrast and help define each other. The artist does not use white chock on white paper. It makes sense to use dark lines on white paper. So whatever opposites you are placing together it must make sense to do so, else you are doing so for the sake of doing so, which is a waste of the readers time.

It is these three principles that I consciously consider: to imagine, to go, and to travel the whole breadth of existence.


copyright 2006 - 2020 Eerik Wissenz