Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Metawriting

Metaposting is either the lowest depths of writer's block, or a legitimate way to improve my writing, by thinking about how I write. In either case I'm not too shameless to do so, not even two posts in a row. I personally think that analyzing my writing, and the language that underlies it, I can improve how I write. A style requires a highly subjective mastery of tone, vocabulary, and how to manipulate words to create emotion, and I don't think that can be picked apart with any real positive result.

But good writing also requires precision. Exactness of grammar, wording, and pattern creates the most meaning when it is followed exactly - except when imprecision is necessary to create a style. With this I cannot help but to quote Raymond Chandler, the master of noir. His ability to mix perfect prose with idiosyncratic cant was necessary to his gritty style: "By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have." Even in that meta-sentence, he juxtaposes turns of phrase like "convey my compliments" with "God damn it."

My writing is precise to the point where I cannot normally write fiction because I am too exact about it. My style is half the formalized prose of American secondary education and half the mixed-dialect measured neutral tone of the longtime Wikipedia editor - with word pairs and tidbits from all sorts of my readings thrown in. I have a tendency to sound like who I read. When I read Douglas Adams, I find triple-digit-word-count, half-paragraph run-on sentences to be the funniest thing since the banana peel. When I read William Gibson, my prose tightens. I read enough that my voice becomes an amalgam and mostly my own rather than near-plagiarism, but on occasion I find myself with a finely-crafted sentence, only to depressingly realize that I read the sentence last year in Richard Feynman's autobiography. Perhaps reading Ayn Rand (more on that later) is causing me to write 600 and thousand-word posts out of nothing.

This post started as a discussion of transgender issues in language. I began with few words on how my feminism post started as a single flowing document. That became 1100 words about hyperfocusing and the nature of genius. Then this post began as that same post... and with this doubly-meta, self-aware sentence it's pushing 500 words about precision in language. Thinking about the way I write causes me to write. I can only hope next post actually goes where I intend it to go.

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