Save “concise” for sports journalism

A few days ago, nr posted a comment that said, “Perhaps writing concisely would help “P” out. Just a small thought.”

After my writerly ego, or the lack thereof, spent a day in the fetal position on the couch, and after a lengthy conversation with my friend/therapist NS, I thought, let’s talk about the metanarrative behind this idea of conciseness.

Bear with  me.  This will be a less-than-concise post.

Let’s go back to 1995 to start this discussion. ENG401. Introduction to Graduate Studies. Dr. Woodson. Consistent grades of B++ on all of my papers. “I love your writing style, but you need to learn to pass the ball around a little more,” he says, in a comment on such a paper. “Subordinate clauses,” he scrawls on another.

I contemplate his comments, and then I go to his office for help. For the magic ingredient to move my writing from B++ to A.

This ingredient turns out to be the semi-colon.

Later, it is the semi-colon that opens up new worlds of discussion for me, but for now I resist.

Our conversation goes something like this:

“I’m not sure what your comment on my paper means, Dr. Woodson,” I tell him, in his office, during office hours.

“Do you play basketball?” he asks.

“No,” I say.

He goes on to talk about basketball at length anyway. He talks about forwards and guards and centers, about passing and dribbling. I understand that this is a metaphor for writing, but I don’t know anything about basketball so the comparison part is lost on me.

“So,” he says, “When the ball is passed to you, do you immediately put it in the basket?”

“Yes,” I answer.

“No,” he says. “You pass the ball around a little bit.”

I make a face. Not my “Oh, I get it!” face.

At some point, he gives in and says, “Look, I know you wrote for political campaigns for a long time, and that you’re used to thinking that you have to get your point across fast and then stop. But here in academia, we’re interested in what you have to say. We’re not going to throw away your writing after reading only the words in bold. You can pass the ball around a little. You can explore ideas.”

What Dr. Woodson does not know is that I am stubborn, resistant, and foolishly confident. I know my writing is clear, concise and solid. I know that academic writing is not. I will not become an academic writer.

I write my final paper for his class, and after it’s written, I go back and edit. I sprinkle semi-colons around as though I am salting french fries. I create subordinate clauses for no reason other than to show I can.

I get my paper back and it’s marked B++/A- -.

I am awarded with an A for the course. I am not sure how I am supposed to feel about this grade. I am pretty sure I have done the Calculus equivalent of memorizing the formulas, missing the point entirely.

Back to 2012.

While I still rail against theory speak, and academic discourses that have as their seemingly only purpose to guard the gates of academia, and while I’m not condoning wordiness, writing about post-structuralism, and being actually interested in post-structuralism and how to use it in the classroom, to open up new avenues of agency, has made me, to some extent, rethink my ranting.

Have the gatekeepers got me in their grasp? Maybe.

But there is something to this academic discourse. Yes, it can be pretty high-falutin’ and Judy Jargon-ish, and yes, it can keep people out instead of inviting them in. But.

But, but, but. Sometimes– (And my 1995 self is at war with my 2012 self as I type this). Sometimes, ideas are complex, labyrinthine even, delicate and nuanced, and need subtly shaded, can’t-find-in-the-dictionary definitions  to explain them. Sometimes the explanations have to be intricately woven through multiple paragraphs with qualifications and mitigations and caveats. Sometimes you have to bear with the writer, struggle to follow her as she struggles to articulate something abstract but important. Sometimes that requires multiple examples, because one of those examples might work better for one reader than for another.

There is a point at which “concise” becomes “reductive.” And writing in a concise manner–striving for concision without examination of why you are valuing concision–reduces important issues and ideas to sound bites and contributes, dangerously, to the abyss into which American communication, American media, has fallen.

Okay, that goes perhaps a bit too far. And I am sure this is not what nr had in mind. There has to be something between Jamison’s inclusion of untranslated French in his discussion of postmodernity and the celebrated conciseness of the American newspaper or news program. There has to be a place where you can experiment with language, where your readers are willing–and interested enough–to let you circle around an idea until you find the right words to describe it, where understanding an abstraction is more important that explaining it in as few words as possible.

And anyway, isn’t the American news story, that bastion of concision, meant to the beginning of one’s understanding of current events? And not the end?

Maybe concision and clarity are not all they’re cracked up to be. Maybe they’re metanarratives that we embrace without enough examination. And maybe American readers of and listeners to our media, to our politics, are living down to our expectations when all we offer them is beautifully concise reductions of nuanced, complex issues. We’ve taught them not to listen, not to read, not to devote more than 13 seconds to any particular story–and not to think too deeply about anything.

Save the conciseness for sports journalism, I say.

Let me leave you with this, from the recently deceased and wonderfully talented David Rakoff. This is an excerpt from an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

GROSS: In your chapter about your therapist, you have great description of yourself when describing your thoughts after telling the therapist that youre going to stop seeing him. And I’d like you to read that for us.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes. This is when he he – I’m not talking about terminating. I seem to be avoiding the topic, and finally he stops me one day. I’m ranting about, I think, human rights in China or something like that. And he finally says, you know, look, weve got to talk about you terminating. This is a big thing.

Turning things around, I asked him what his feelings were about our ending things. Im incredibly angry, he responded fondly. How dare you? You should at least have to come and have coffee with me once a week. I asked if he felt this way about most of his patients. Not really, he responded.

Sigh. Should you happen to be possessed of a certain verbal acuity coupled with a relentless, hair-trigger humor and surface cheer spackling over a chronic melancholia and loneliness – a grotesquely caricatured version of your deepest self, which you trot out at the slightest provocation to endearing and glib comic effect, thus rendering you the kind of fellow who is beloved by all yet loved by none, all of it to distract, however fleetingly, from the cold and dead-faced truth that with each passing year you face the unavoidable certainty of a solitary future in which you will perish one day while vainly attempting the Heimlich maneuver on yourself over the back of a kitchen chair – then this confirmation that you have triumphed again and managed to gull yet another mark, except this time it was the one person youd hoped might be immune to your ever-creakier, puddle-shallow, sideshow-barker variation on adorable, even though you’d been launching this campaign weekly with a single-minded concentration from day one – well, it conjures up feelings that are best described as mixed, to say the least.

GROSS: I just want to point out, since our listeners dont have a copy of your book in front of them, that most of that reading was one sentence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That one very well-balanced juggling act there. So I just want to ask you, did you consciously intend to keep that one sentence?

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah. Yeah. It felt – I like, well, I like a little ranty sandwich of a sentence or a lasagna of a sentence or, you know, or (unintelligible) of a sentence, to be perfectly homosexual about the metaphor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: I like things that, you know, build in that way with semi-colons and em-dashes and things like that.

(You can find the interview in its entirety here.)

What would we do without David Rakoff and that beautiful sentence? Because aside from everything I’ve argued above, a nice, long, sentence, full of words and clauses and dashes and winding all over the place conveys so much more than just information.

One Response to “Save “concise” for sports journalism”

  1. I agree with what you write in your post. My intent was not to encourage brevity, but conciseness. By which I meant choosing words which provide “shape” to the idea you which to convey. The analogy I would use would be pruning a tree for its health and visual beauty. Your example of the the “rant” is great because it shows intent on the author’s part to manipulate the reader. The act is intentional. You are the writer, as a reader, I want to believe each word you have written matters; not that your goal is to obfuscate meaning with lots of large words to impress me (or demean me). I am willing to work to understand, but I don’t want to feel that you don’t care about me.

    Now, in truth, you are writing a dissertation, and the audience for that particular piece of writing is different than your blog. As a piece of scholarly work, much technical/philosophical jargon can fly on the page with a certain high expectation regarding your enlightened reader, but your blog was deliberately created to access a broader audience. I believe this may require the author to make slightly different word choices to aid the reader in accessing the meaning(s) of the text.

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