Monday, December 03, 2012

Style & Image, Some Exercises

For those who want to work consciously on their style, here are three simple exercises worth trying. I recommend doing them one paragraph at a time, either alone or with a partner (with a partner is best). They are inspired in part by Borges's reminder, in "A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw", that "a book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialog it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory." What here goes for the book goes also for journal article and for the paragraphs out of which it is made. You are not just building a verbal structure. You are engaging with the reader's imagination. A good style emerges from taking this engagement, this "meeting of minds", seriously.

The first exercise is literally about the "voice" you write with. Any text has what rhetoricians call an "immanent orality", i.e., a natural way of reading it out loud, of performing it. The strong version of this hermeneutic implies that interpreting a text is just a matter of imagining its oral performance. Giving meaning to the words ultimately tells us how to read it out loud. In order to do that exactly right, of course, we have to know what all the words mean. A well-written paragraph is easy to understand and therefore easy to read out loud.

Read your paragraph out loud, carefully and intentionally. Be aware of how the text seems to "want" to be read out loud. If something seems wrong, fix it in the text. If you are working with a partner, give it to them to read. (Don't let them listen to you first.) Now, see if they read it the same way you did, the same way you imagined it should be read.

The second exercise is about those "changing and durable images" or, to return to Wittgenstein's remark from last week, the pictures we make of the facts. Since most paragraphs will state a fact (because they make a claim, i.e., they assert something to be the case), we can ask: What does the picture of that fact look like?

Draw the picture of that fact. Sometimes you will simply sketch a scene, or a series of comic book frames. You might draw an organizational chart or a process diagram. Or you might need to do something more abstract. But decide on a reasonably limited set of expressive resources. (Work in black and white. Stick figures. Etc.) Now, get your partner to draw a picture of the fact based only on their reading of your paragraph. Comparing the results will give you a sense of whether your writing is making the right visual impression on the mind of the reader.

The third exercise is similar to the second but assumes that sometimes a paragraph will not so much assert a fact as enjoin an act.

Imagine the action or set of actions, individual or collective, physical or social, that your paragraph proposes. These may be presented as a "to do list" or as a diagram or picture of what is to be done (like Ikea instructions). Here again, compare your image of the relevant action with the image your paragraph conjures up in the mind of your partner.

Readers differ. Some have very visual imaginations, others more acoustic ones. But a text that does not give the imagination anything very definite to work with is not likely to be understood. It may be a verbally imposing structure. But it will not have real style.

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