I like to think I’m a reasonably good communicator, particularly when it comes to the written word, but it’s true that I am not pithy. I am probably one of the least pithy people you will ever meet. It’s a good thing words are a renewable resource otherwise I would have run stone dry by the age of twenty, using up a lifetime’s store of words in two decades, and that’s counting my preverbal years.
I am extremely verbal. Pathologically so.
This causes problems with word counts in essays and economy of expression in scientific papers. My rule of thumb is generally to write a paper, and then go back and reduce it by about a third. Some of it is expression; my sense of humour lends itself to a sort of dry over-expression, a way of using more words to craft something into an obvious understatement (and yes, I grew up on BBC comedies, particularly Blackadder, the Young Ones, and Red Dwarf. You may recognise some of my turn of phrase). Some of it is simply that I love description – why use one adjective when I could use five? (and yes, my editorial policy on my fiction writing is to go through and remove a bunch of adjectives)
But when it comes to blogging about topics I care about, it gets extreme. For the most part, people tend to prefer short and punchy blog posts that are easy to follow, and here I am churning out up to 4,000 words, with a bunch of parenthetical side notes and weird conversational subheadings.
Why is that? Do I not understand what economy of expression is?
Of course I do, but believe it or not, there’s a good reason I write the way I do. It’s far from the only way to write, but it’s the way I get my position across and tell stories.
I sort of see blog posts as something between a conversation and a story, a narrative that artificially cuts out a chunk of reasoning and life experience and tries to infodump it in one place at one time, somehow complete with all the contributing context. Sometimes I picture it as though I’ve removed an organ – here, have a liver, don’t mind all the blood vessels dangling everywhere and the ducts that connect it to the rest of the body. And uh, okay, those ducts are important and they connect to important parts, and you’re not really going to understand liver unless we get stuck into that too… hey, let’s talk kidneys. And bladders. And before you know it, somehow we’ve ended up with the whole digestive and excretory system.
It happens in face-to-face conversation too. Husband repeatedly tries to steer me back on track because I regularly get lost in tangents (the parenthetical “side notes” we find in a lot of my blog posts), and it’s one of the reasons my blog posts have slowed so dramatically lately. I have a lot to say, that’s still true, but the things I want to tackle are increasingly complex, and I find it’s hard to share my opinion without actually making it clear how I came to that opinion, and then it sort of segues from an opinion piece to a personal experience piece. I end up doubting that anyone is going to read the whole thing from start to finish.
Context matters. Context can be everything. There are some things you can take out of context and they’re still the same, but they’re not common. My opinions aren’t – can’t be – separate from my own experiences and concerns. Nobody’s opinions are separate from their own experiences and concerns. Can’t be.
It just doesn’t work like that.
There’s more. When I make an argument, I imagine the rebuttals to that argument, and so I figure, why wait? Let’s just answer those objections now. It saves time. Keto was a perfect example: there are so many objections to keto that are based on very, very common misinformation that it just makes sense to tackle it head-on, i.e., “No, fat isn’t going to kill you.”
Then there’s the feminism posts. As much as “notallmenning” makes me want to stab myself in the eye when I see it, I’ve seen so much defensive behaviour when discussing feminism that it’s just easier to tackle that head-on as well. It is much easier to have a disclaimer to make it clear what I am not saying as to focus on what I am saying, because I can’t assume that people will be clear on what I am not saying.
(For example, and here’s a side note for you: people who start crying about censorship when you say you don’t like some of the problematic representations of women in popular culture. It’s almost worth saying in big bold letters I am not saying we should ban stuff, I am saying we should think about stuff, because thinking about stuff is important. I once had a conversation about how treating women like shit for breastfeeding in public is bad because it makes people feel shitty and that’s not fair, and then got a sneering response about how well that stands up in court. How the hell did we get from “don’t be a tool” to “legal defense”? Since when does court matter when we start talking about how to treat people decently?)
There is so much room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. I have a genuine horror of being misunderstood. It’s actually slightly nauseating and leads me to avoid a lot of debates. It’s one of the reasons I am so blunt, but it’s also one of the reasons that I add in all the disclaimers, all the context, all the extra information. The more information I can provide, the less likely it is that I will be misunderstood.
I always believe that the more information you have, the better the information you have, the better the decisions you can make. Maybe everyone has a right to an opinion, but I will respect an opinion derived from knowledge over an opinion derived from made-up horseshit. So to speak.
Then there’s my own stories: I add in personal experience (the much-maligned “anecdata”) because that’s where the humour and the passion comes in. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the interesting bit. Not my stupid stories about my life and my body and my pets, but what those stories have done to change my perspective. I am quite happy to read a cultural critique of a piece of pop culture (it’s like brain candy. I read quite a lot of it), but at the same time, I also want to read personal stories. I want to know how people relate to the world around them, and how they respond to these problems, and where these opinions come in.
I am constantly editing my own opinions based on my own experience and based on the stories I get from other people. I am constantly cutting in other people’s experiences, adding in things I might have missed, changing the patterns and rules for interaction, trying to aim for maximum truth, maximum fairness. I fall short a lot.
I suppose I want to make it clear that even apparently abstract ideas… aren’t really abstract. They have impacts, down the line. They affect people’s choices. They affect people’s opportunities. They make changes. Something that might seem fine in the abstract will have terrible consequences in the real world. Something that might seem completely irrelevant in the abstract to you personally might have incredible implications for someone else’s lived experience. That’s why the personal stories.
And of course I want to explain – if I know – why things happened. That sets up a chain of cause and effect that can go a long way back indeed, and I can’t always easily figure out where that needs to stop. I’m never sure when that cause and effect becomes irrelevant, in a non-linear story.
Because here’s the thing that stumps me: opinions and ideas and experiences are all non-linear. None of them are products of one simple chain of cause and effect. They’re a big foggy fractal network of events and ideas and exposure to concepts and learning and changing. Everything is coming at you from all sides, all the time, and the challenge – as I see it – is to somehow make it linear without missing anything.
It’s to somehow try and translate this ideological, experiential chaos into something that follows a comprehensible timeline. When you do that, you lose bits in the editorial process. It’s like turning a book into a movie: you’re translating from one medium into a very different medium and trying to tell the same story. Something is going to be lost in translation, and you have to decide what stays, and what can’t be effectively translated, and what pieces of the story you can’t afford to lose.
My choice is always to cut less, because I’m never sure I’m cutting out the right thing. What if I’m cutting out the one thing that will make sense to someone?
Or to put it another way, it’s probably a good thing I’m not a surgeon.