Wednesday, January 04, 2017

How Not To Write Like An Archdruid

Among the occasional amusements I get from writing these weekly essays are earnest comments from people who want to correct my writing style. I field one of them every month or so, and the latest example came in over the electronic transom in response to last week’s post. Like most of its predecessors, it insisted that there’s only one correct way to write for the internet, trotted out a set of canned rules that supposedly encapsulate this one correct way, and assumed as a matter of course that the only reason I didn’t follow those rules is that I’d somehow managed not to hear about them yet.

The latter point is the one I find most amusing, and also most curious. Maybe I’m naive, but it’s always seemed to me that if I ran across someone who was writing in a style I found unusual, the first thing I’d want to do would be to ask the author why he or she had chosen that stylistic option—because, you know, any writer who knows the first thing about his or her craft chooses the style he or she finds appropriate for any given writing project. I field such questions once in a blue moon, and I’m happy to answer them, because I do indeed have reasons for writing these essays in the style I’ve chosen for them. Yet it’s much more common to get the sort of style policing I’ve referenced above—and when that happens, you can bet your bottom dollar that what’s being pushed is the kind of stilted, choppy, dumbed-down journalistic prose that I’ve deliberately chosen not to write.

I’m going to devote a post to all this, partly because I write what I want to write about, the way I want to write about it, for the benefit of those who enjoy reading it, and those who don’t are encouraged to remember that there are thousands of other blogs out there that they’re welcome to read instead. Partly, though, the occasional thudding of what Giordano Bruno called “the battering rams of infants, the catapults of error, the bombards of the inept, and the lightning flashes, thunder, and great tempests of the ignorant”—now there was a man who could write!—raises issues that are central to the occasional series of essays on education I’ve been posting here.

Accepting other people’s advice on writing is a risky business—and yes, that applies to this blog post as well as any other source of such advice. It’s by no means always true that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” but when we’re talking about unsolicited writing advice on the internet, that’s the way to bet.  Thus it’s not enough for some wannabe instructor to tell you “I’ve taught lots of people” (taught them what?) or “I’ve helped lots of people” (to do what?)—the question you need to ask is what the instructor himself or herself has written and where it’s been published.

The second of those matters as much as the first. It so happens, for example, that a great many of the professors who offer writing courses at American universities publish almost exclusively in the sort of little literary quarterlies that have a circulation in three figures and pay contributors in spare copies. (It’s not coincidental that these days, most of the little literary quarterlies in question are published by university English departments.) There’s nothing at all wrong with that, if you dream of writing the sort of stories, essays, and poetry that populate little literary quarterlies.

If you want to write something else, though, it’s worth knowing that these little quarterlies have their own idiosyncratic literary culture. There was a time when the little magazines were one of the standard stepping stones to a successful writing career, but that time went whistling down the wind decades ago. Nowadays, the little magazines have gone one way, the rest of the publishing world has gone another, and many of the habits the little magazines encourage (or even require) in their writers will guarantee prompt and emphatic rejection slips from most other writing venues.

Different kinds of writing, in other words, have their own literary cultures and stylistic customs. In some cases, those can be roughly systematized in the form of rules. That being the case, is there actually some set of rules that are followed by everything good on the internet?

Er, that would be no. I’m by no means a fan of the internet, all things considered—I publish my essays here because most of the older venues I’d prefer no longer exist—but it does have its virtues, and one of them is the remarkable diversity of style to be found there. If you like stilted, choppy, dumbed-down journalistic prose of the sort my commenter wanted to push on me, why, yes, you can find plenty of it online. You can also find lengthy, well-argued essays written in complex and ornate prose, stream-of-consciousness pieces that out-beat the Beat generation, experimental writing of any number of kinds, and more. Sturgeon’s Law (“95% of everything is crap”) applies here as it does to every other human creation, but there are gems to be found online that range across the spectrum of literary forms and styles. No one set of rules applies.

Thus we can dismiss the antics of the style police out of hand. Let’s go deeper, though. If there’s no one set of rules that internet writing ought to follow, are there different rules for each kind of writing? Or are rules themselves the problem? This is where things get interesting.

One of the consistent mental hiccups of American popular culture is the notion that every spectrum consists solely of its two extremes, with no middle ground permitted, and that bit of paralogic gets applied to writing at least as often as to anything else. Thus you have, on the one hand, the claim that the only way to write well is to figure out what the rules are and follow them with maniacal rigidity; on the other, the claim that the only way to write well is to throw all rules into the trash can and let your inner genius, should you happen to have one of those on hand, spew forth the contents of your consciousness all anyhow onto the page. Partisans of those two viewpoints snipe at one another from behind rhetorical sandbags, and neither one of them ever manages more than a partial victory, because neither approach is particularly useful when it comes to the actual practice of writing.

By and large, when people write according to a rigidly applied set of rules—any rigidly applied set of rules—the result is predictable, formulaic, and trite, and therefore boring. By and large, when people write without paying any attention to rules at all, the result is vague, shapeless, and maundering, and therefore boring. Is there a third option? You bet, and it starts by taking the abandoned middle ground: in this case, learning an appropriate set of rules, and using them as a starting point, but departing from them wherever doing so will improve the piece you’re writing.

The set of rules I recommend, by the way, isn’t meant to produce the sort of flat PowerPoint verbiage my commenter insists on. It’s meant to produce good readable English prose, and the source of guidance I recommend to those who are interested in such things is Strunk and White’s deservedly famous The Elements of Style. Those of my readers who haven’t worked with it, who want to improve their writing, and who’ve glanced over what I’ve published and decided that they might be able to learn something useful from me, could do worse than to read it and apply it to their prose.

A note of some importance belongs here, though. There’s a thing called writer’s block, and it happens when you try to edit while you’re writing. I’ve read, though I’ve misplaced the reference, that neurologists have found that the part of the brain that edits and the part of the brain that creates are not only different, they conflict with one another.  If you try to use both of them at once, your brain freezes up in a fairly close neurological equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death, and you stop being able to write at all. That’s writer’s block. To avoid it, NEVER EDIT WHILE YOU’RE WRITING. 

I mean that quite literally. Don’t even look at the screen if you can’t resist the temptation to second-guess the writing process. If you have to, turn the screen off, so you can’t even see what you’re writing. Eventually, with practice, you’ll learn to move smoothly back and forth between creative mode and editing mode, but if you don’t have a lot of experience writing, leave that for later. For now, just blurt it all out without a second thought, with all its misspellings and garbled grammar intact.

Then, after at least a few hours—or better yet, after a day or so—go back over the mess, cutting, pasting, adding, and deleting as needed, until you’ve turned it into nice clean text that says what you want it to say. Yes, we used to do that back before computers; the process is called “cut and paste” because it was done back then with a pair of scissors and a pot of paste, the kind with a little spatula mounted on the inside of the lid to help you spread the stuff; you’d cut out the good slices of raw prose and stick them onto a convenient sheet of paper, interspersed with handwritten or freshly typed additions. Then you sat down and typed your clean copy from the pasted-up mess thus produced. Now you know how to do it when the internet finally dries up and blows away. (You’re welcome.)

In the same way, you don’t try to write while looking up rules in Strunk & White. Write your piece, set it aside for a while, and then go over it with your well-worn copy of Strunk & White in hand, noting every place you broke one of the rules of style the book suggests you should follow. The first few times, as a learning exercise, you might consider rewriting the whole thing in accordance with those rules—but only the first few times. After that, make your own judgment call: is this a place where you should follow the rules, or is this a place where they need to be bent, broken, or trampled into the dust? Only you, dear reader-turned-writer, can decide.

A second important note deserves to be inserted at this point, though. The contemporary US public school system can be described without too much inaccuracy as a vast mechanism for convincing children that they can’t write. Rigid rules imposed for the convenience of educators rather than the good of the students, part of the industrial mass-production ethos that pervades public schools in this country, leave a great many graduates so bullied, beaten, and bewildered by bad pedagogy that the thought of writing something for anybody else to read makes them turn gray with fear. It’s almost as bad as the terror of public speaking the public schools also go out of their way to inflict, and it plays a comparable role in crippling people’s capacity to communicate outside their narrow circles of friends.

If you suffer from that sort of educational hangover, dear reader, draw a deep breath and relax. The bad grades and nasty little comments in red ink you got from Mrs. Melba McNitpick, your high school English teacher, are no reflection of your actual capacities as a writer. If you can talk, you can write—it’s the same language, after all. For that matter, even if you can’t talk, you may be able to write—there’s a fair number of people out there who are nonverbal for one reason or another, and can still make a keyboard dance.

The reason I mention this here is that the thought of making an independent judgment about when to follow the rules and when to break them fills a great many survivors of American public schools with dread. In far too many cases, students are either expected to follow the rules with mindless obedience and given bad grades if they fail to do so, or given no rules at all and then expected to conform to unstated expectations they have no way to figure out, and either of these forms of bad pedagogy leaves scars. Again, readers who are in this situation should draw a deep breath and relax; having left Mrs. McNitpick’s class, you’re not subject to her opinions any longer, and should ignore them utterly.

So how do you decide where to follow the rules and where to fold, spindle, and mutilate them? That’s where we walk through the walls and into the fire, because what guides you in your decisions regarding the rules of English prose is the factor of literary taste.

Rules can be taught, but taste can only be learned. Does that sound like a paradox? Au contraire, it simply makes the point that only you can learn, refine, and ripen your literary taste—nobody else can do it for you, or even help you to any significant extent—and your sense of taste is therefore going to be irreducibly personal. When it comes to taste, you aren’t answerable to Mrs. McNitpick, to me, to random prose trolls on the internet, or to anyone else. What’s more, you develop your taste for prose the same way you develop your taste for food: by trying lots of different things, figuring out what you like, and paying close attention to what you like, why you like it, and what differentiates it from the things you don’t like as much.

This is applicable, by the way, to every kind of writing, including those kinds at which the snobs among us turn up their well-sharpened noses. I don’t happen to be a fan of the kind of satirical gay pornography that Chuck Tingle has made famous, for example, but friends of mine who are tell me that in that genre, as in all others, there are books that are well written, books that are tolerable, and books that trip over certain overelongated portions of their anatomy and land face first in—well, let’s not go there, shall we? In the same way, if your idea of a good read is nineteenth-century French comedies of manners, you can find a similar spectrum extending from brilliance to bathos.

Every inveterate reader takes in a certain amount of what I call popcorn reading—the sort of thing that’s read once, mildly enjoyed, and then returned to the library, the paperback exchange, or whatever electronic Elysium e-books enter when you hit the delete button. That’s as inevitable as it is harmless. The texts that matter in developing your personal taste, though, are the ones you read more than once, and especially the ones you read over and over again. As you read these for the third or the thirty-third time, step back now and then from the flow of the story or the development of the argument, and notice how the writer uses language. Learn to notice the really well-turned phrases, the figures of speech that are so apt and unexpected that they seize your attention, the moments of humor, the plays on words, the  passages that match tone and pacing to the subject perfectly.

If you’ve got a particular genre in mind—no, let’s stop for a moment and talk about genre, shall we? Those of my readers who endured a normal public school education here in the US probably don’t know that this is pronounced ZHON-ruh (it’s a French word) and it simply means a category of writing. Satirical gay pornography is a genre. The comedy of manners is a genre. The serious contemporary literary novel is a genre.  So are mysteries, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and the list goes on. There are also nonfiction genres—for example, future-oriented social criticism, the genre in which nine of my books from The Long Descent to Dark Age America have their place. Each genre is an answer to the question, “I just read this and I liked it—where can I find something else more or less like it?”

Every genre has its own habits and taboos, and if you want to write for publication, you need to know what those are. That doesn’t mean you have to follow those habits and taboos with the kind of rigid obedience critiqued above—quite the contrary—but you need to know about them, so that when you break the rules you do it deliberately and skillfully, to get the results you want, rather than clumsily, because you didn’t know any better. It also helps to read the classics of the genre—the books that established those habits and taboos—and then go back and read books in the genre written before the classics, to get a sense of what possibilities got misplaced when the classics established the frame through which all later works in that genre would be read.

If you want to write epic fantasy, for example, don’t you dare stop with Tolkien—it’s because so many people stopped with Tolkien that we’ve got so many dreary rehashes of something that was brilliantly innovative in 1949, complete with carbon-copy Dark Lords cackling in chorus and the inevitable and unendearing quest to do something with the Magic McGuffin that alone can save blah blah blah. Read the stuff that influenced Tolkien—William Morris, E.R. Eddison, the Norse sagas, the Kalevala, Beowulf.  Then read something in the way of heroic epic that he probably didn’t get around to reading—the Ramayana, the Heike Monogatari, the Popol Vuh, or what have youand think through what those have to say about the broader genre of heroic wonder tale in which epic fantasy has its place.

The point of this, by the way, isn’t to copy any of these things. It’s to develop your own sense of taste so that you can shape your own prose accordingly. Your goal, if you’re at all serious about writing, isn’t to write like Mrs. McNitpick, like your favorite author of satirical gay pornography or nineteenth-century French comedies of manners, or like me, but to write like yourself.

And that, to extend the same point more broadly, is the goal of any education worth the name. The word “education” itself comes from the Latin word educatio, from ex-ducere, “to lead out or bring out;” it’s about leading or bringing out the undeveloped potentials that exist inside the student, not shoving some indigestible bolus of canned information or technique down the student’s throat. In writing as in all other things that can be learned, that process of bringing out those undeveloped potentials requires the support of rules and examples, but those are means to an end, not ends in themselves—and it’s in the space between the rules and their inevitable exceptions, between the extremes of rigid formalism and shapeless vagueness, that the work of creation takes place.

That’s also true of politics, by the way—and the conventional wisdom of our time fills the same role there that the rules for bad internet prose do for writing. Before we can explore that, though, it’s going to be necessary to take on one of the more pervasive bad habits of contemporary thinking about the relationship between the present and the past. We’ll tackle that next week.

********************
In not wholly unrelated news, I’m pleased to announce that Merigan Tales, the anthology of short stories written by Archdruid Report readers set in the world of my novel Star’s Reach, is now in print and available for purchase from Founders House. Those of my readers who enjoyed Star’s Reach and the After Oil anthologies won’t want to miss it.

222 comments:

1 – 200 of 222   Newer›   Newest»
RobM said...

I respect and agree with many of your opinions but I do not like that it usually takes you a thousand words to express a ten word idea. I now usually skip to the last paragraph. I'm not suggesting you change, just giving honest feedback.

Art Myatt said...

I don't have any particular problem with grammar or spelling. The problem I have in writing about a subject is first gaining a decent understanding of it. Then when I write about it, connected ideas and facts tend to come out in long, convoluted sentences. In rewriting, I have to break these into several sentences with simple subjects and verbs, or sometimes even into several paragraphs. Rewriting is easy; understanding the subject is hard.

Ludovic Viger said...

Hello OTTAWA-GATINEAU readers, our next Green Wizards meeting is January 12th (Thursday), 6PM @ Bridgehead Coffee, Bank/Albert.

Everybody Welcome !!

Alexander Carpenter said...

...., and those who can't teach, teach education.

Lawfish1964 said...

I have always admired your writing style above all others. Your prose is the most interesting and captivating of any I read, and I read a fair amount. I also spend my days writing analytically and enjoy using literary techniques to make such dry reading more interesting. Personal insights, a bit of sarcasm, and generous use of analogies all make reading an otherwise dry analysis less unenjoyable, so to speak.

Thank you for your weekly contribution to my own personal writing style. I look forward to reading next week's post, as always.

Mrbluesky said...

Thank you JMG, another great piece and good start to the new year. I particularly liked the advice of not editing whilst writing - I like to write in longhand - good old pen and paper, then, next session, to type it up and edit whilst doing so; one day I might actually dare to offer my stuff to the wider world.

lordberia3@gmail.com said...

Great post John.

Just to say that I think your writing style is very good and don't change it!

I was wondering if you could comment on a couple of issues which I have been thinking about recently.

There are emerging reports across the Continent of violent attacks and sexual assaults by migrants on NYE (http://www.breitbart.com/london/2017/01/03/dortmund-mob-attack-police-church-alight/) are as worrying as they are predictable.

Where do you place the 1.2 million strong migration invasion into Europe in the context of Toynbee's internal and external proletariat model? My understanding is that the importation of huge numbers of young migrants from the Middle East and North Africa is the introduction to Germany of an external proletariat into a society who will become a massive urban underclass in the coming years.

One must wonder how this dynamic will play out with the growing chasm between the elite of Germany and their own internal proletariat who are increasingly disgruntled about where things are going in Germany.

Thanks and look forward to hearing your feedback.

Mrbluesky said...

Thank you JMG, a great piece to start the new year. I particularly liked the advice to not edit whilst writing - I like to write in longhand - good old pen and paper - then, next session, to type it up, editing the while; one day I might even offer some of it up to the wider world.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Thank you for this JMG. In a stroke of coincidence I've had cause to ponder this very topic today. My 13-year-old daughter has been worried all week about writing an essay at school and was seeking some guidance from me. I went through the subject matter of the essay and offered encouragements and ideas but it wasn't what she was after. She kept asking me odd questions such as "How many connectives are you allowed to use in a paragraph?" and "If three paragraphs have three sentences is the fourth paragraph allowed to have four?."

It was then that I realised they are being trained —ordered — to produce some kind of technically formulated drivel that is easy to mark (perhaps even by computers?) but is devoid of creativity, insight and flair. In fact, if she was to write with creativity, insight and flair she'd likely lose marks!

So, increasingly, I find myself explaining to her that "This is what the teachers want" while at the same time encouraging her to just relax and develop her own style. I shall be printing out this week's Archdruid Report and giving it to her for advice (and just hope she doesn't ask too much about the satirical gay pornography bit).

Congratulations on the release of the Merigan Tales book. I read your essay on science fiction and fantasy in Mythic just this morning - I hope soon to submit a story or two to it. I hope you don't mind me reminding your readers about my own newly-released semi-scifi book "Seat of Mars" - which puts into fictional form many of the subjects that have been discussed here on this blog over the years. It is available here.

M Smith said...

When you spoke of making a keyboard dance, I thought of two eloquent songs that used ordinary words in a stark way that made people weep: "Sophisticated Lady" by Duke Ellington ("And when nobody is nigh, you cry.") and "What'll I Do" by Irving Berlin ("When I'm alone with only dreams of you that won't come true, what'll I do?").


drhooves said...

JMG, another fine post - and an example of why the ADR falls in the five percent of "gems" on the internet. Writing is about communication, among other things, and your style of combining the elements of history, sociology, politics, science, etc., and tying it all together to make coherent and concise points is truly something to behold. Your output is thought provoking, entertaining and quite relevant.

I took a writing class this past fall to pick up some pointers about the creative side of the craft, and of course to motivate me to actually put something down on paper. What I found, to my amazement, was the the wide range of "voices" by each of us in the class, and the unique talents those voices have. Regardless of the "quality" of the final product, the key to getting words on paper was to NOT fight the inner voice and allow it to be constrained by the "rules of popularity". The key was to let the ideas flow and worry about edits later. Sometimes a single sentence or phrase is the cornerstone of an idea which can be developed or unpacked into a paragraph, essay or novel.

NomadsSoul said...

Hi JMG,

Thank You. Your thoughts mirror my own experience.

To become a better writer - read, read and read some more.

Best advice anyone can give an aspiring writer, besides Strunk and White.

By the way, thank you for the well written essays. This reader approves.

Dudley Dawson said...

Amazing advice! I don't even know where to start.

I won't bore you with the gory details of my education. Suffice it to say that I've been exposed to a lot of writing teachers and a lot of writing advice. Everything you say is dead on.

Nowadays, with the abundance of how-to books and writing blogs, it seems like some people believe that a shortcut to success exists, and if you consume enough advice from the right people, a publisher will show up at your door with a briefcase full of doubloons. Not so much.

My first three novels were garbage. Success, right now, is that each is less garbage-y than the last. I'm failing forward. If it's a labor of love, grinding like this really isn't a grind at all. Instead, every blank page is a new chance to impress yourself.

My daughters (10 and 9) are in Ms. Nitpicky's class at the moment. They're both word-nerds, but I've been seeing some distress lately as their teachers tear their writing apart. To combat that, I've been giving them writing assignments and explaining that the point of the exercise is to be okay with failing. If they aren't happy with the end-product, we just try it again. Last week they read Basho and wrote their own Haiku; this week they're making a map and writing a story to accompany it.

The more I experience the school system through my kids, the more I realize that it's a constant struggle to not let subjects like this, or learning in general, turn into a miserable chore.

As a final note: thank goodness you aren't taking these advice trolls to heart. Your style is amazing. I've been reading this blog for years and Well of Galabes since its inception. I wasn't even interested in Magic, really, but you drew me into the subject with your writing (I just bought a copy of Learning Ritual Magic, too). I make time each week to kick back and read your essays, as I would with a novel. Not many websites can make me do that. In fact, yours might be the only one...





John Michael Greer said...

Rob, if all you can find in those ten thousand words is one ten word idea, that may have more to do with your understanding than my writing, you know.

Art, well, yes. It's a good rule of thumb in writing that if you can't write clearly about something, you probably don't understand it yet.

Alexander, based on what I've heard from people who graduated with education degrees and then tried to put what they'd learned to use in a classroom, I tend to agree.

Lawfish, thank you.

Mrbluesky, that's a classic approach, and it's produced some very good writing over the years!

Lordberia3, I'll be considering those points in upcoming posts.

Jason, based on the 13 year olds I've met recently, I suspect your daughter already knows more about satirical gay pornography than you think! That said, the sort of thing she's being taught is painfully common these days, and I hope you can help her shield her writing abilities from their noxious influence.

M Smith, good! Not necessarily the keyboard I had in mind, of course, but the point's valid.

Drhoves, thank you. I'm glad that such classes still exist!

NomadSoul, thank you much!

Aron Blue said...

Sound advice. Strunk and White plus a lifetime of experience AND reading. It also helps if you don't mind being alone.

I just self-published my first book so I found this essay extra timely. Thanks!

Peter VE said...

Hello JMG,
I almost leapt onto the pile on the Mad commenter last week, but our community did a pretty thorough job before I could get my thoughts in order.
First thought: Your writing has inspired one of the best comments sections I am aware of on the internet. The comments are a direct response to the quality of the writing.
Second thought: there's plenty of uninspired formulaic writing out there for those who need it.

My first copy of Strunk & White came in Stu Coleman's eighth grade English class. His favorite comment:" You're in a fog, boy." He was right.

I certainly hope that your approval of Giordano Bruno doesn't lead to a similar end. I've been to the place of his burning.

Bruno B. L. said...

JMG, I'd really appreciate your help with something. I've recently read your novel, "Twilight's last gleaming", and would like to read other novels like it. Would you know what the genre is called, and would you have any reading suggestions to make in that regard? Thank you in advance.

Avery said...

JMG, I choose to believe that RobM is not serious but is attempting to troll you into writing a sequel to this post for next week. Now that you've given us some ideas on how to write, you can teach the RobMs of the world how to read.

On a bit of a tangent, I would like to let you know that your comment about academic literary journals "paying contributors in spare copies" is actually a little optimistic these days. I recently contributed a year's worth of research to an academic publication by Routledge (a well respected American academic publisher). For my time and money, I was paid in... digital access to my own article and the other articles in the book. I was not even given a single print copy! However, I do get a 40% discount on copies of this $100 book, and in 5 years' time I will be allowed to send PDF copies of my own article to my friends.

Meanwhile, for my short story that you included in the After Oil competition, I am still receiving royalties. To those of you thinking of going into academia, let this serve as your caveat emptor...

Raymond Duckling said...

Report from the Southern front:

Mexico has received the new year with a price hike in gasoline prices (14%-20% depending on the actual octanage of the formula). The causes and consequences are a bit complex, so bear with me.

Even if we are an oil producing country, our infrastructure is heavily geared towards extraction and we do not have enough transformation capacity to satisfy internal demand; which forces us to export crude oil - mostly to US - and import it back in the form of gasoline and other products. The first cause is that victory of D.Trump has both increased the price of US dollar and, more importantly, produced an expectation of economic recession. Our Federal Government is trying to balance its budget by cutting all the usual social expenses, - health, education, infrastructure, etc, - but that proved to be not enough. Therefore, when forced to triage they have gambled that the least damaging thing to go is combustible subsidies.

Energy prices in Mexico are fixed by Federal Government, and heavily subsidized. To be fair, they have been trying to come out of this trap for more than a decade, but the instability of international prices have prevented it. They merely settled for slow but steady increases that would eat up on the increased oil revenues on the upwards side of the equation and happily reap the fruits when the prices goes down again. The schedule to eliminate subsidies and establish a parity with international crude prices was 2018.

The gamble of the current administration has been to rush ahead one year, because 2018 is election year in Mexico. This is the other cause of this decision. President Pena-Nieto's party would have got the backslash of this plan in the voting polls, had it been carried out as scheduled. Unfortunatelly, they seem to have underestimated the consequences of pooling together 18 months of price hikes in a single, big, highly noticeable event.

The consequences are universal reject of this measure, with both violent and non violent events taking place in all the country: At least one gas station has been looted and burned down in southern state of Chiapas. Several tolls in highways have been taken under control of organized groups of civilians that simply let everybody pass without paying for hours. In my very home town, more or less within walking distance from where I went to highschool, a pacific manifestation has been disipated by police with tear gas, arguably because they were blocking the BRT lane.

More intereting things are happening in my town. Even when record numbers of commuters are trying to use public transportation again, after their ill fated love afair with the car, the contractors running the bus lines are grounding units in protest because they would be forced to operate on red numbers if ticket prices (which are also fixed and set by the (State) government) were to remain the same as last year. The city major was already talking about grounding ambulances and police cars, since municipal budgets are set at the State level too.

Not that any of this is surprising at the least, but I cannot imagine how frightening and disconcerting this facts would be without a mental framework to make sense of all this. with a little forewarning and a whole lots of Faith and optimism, 2017 promises to be quite an interesting time to be around. Thank you JMG, for the great work you have made in laying out the maps of the futures ahead.


Raymond Duckling said...


Oh, and that old rascal and twice candidate to the presidency, Andres Manuel Lopez-Obrador, is riding it for all that it's worth. First, he published a video linking the current hike in prices to Pena-Nieto's Energetics Reform (which he behemently opposed back in the day). He called the President a "Executioner of the People", and accussed of hypocrisy to all the senators that are now decrying the price hike but that backed up the reform a couple of years ago. And now he has publicly declared that we need to take down the corrupt institutions of this country by any pacific means available. People were already comparing him with Trump since last year, so you might as well add his name to the 2017 demagoges' roster.

dltrammel said...

Then the Corollary of Sturgeon's Law is "5% of everything, ISN'T crap"?

Now that's a five percent I like.

Unknown said...

Hi JMG,
Thank you for sharing this. I saw that comment last week, lol. I don't know what gets into people sometimes, but, I have noticed that most unsolicited offers for "help" are, more often than not, some expression and desire for validation of ego more so than anything else.

I am writing a zombie story, and working on it when I pulled this up. Here's a chapter, any critique?
...
Maestro heard the ear-piercing scream from inside Jack’s apartment. He stepped out onto the balcony, trying to get a glimpse of what was happening below. He heard the muffled bark of Bruno’s voice, but could not make out what was being said, or to who.

“I have to trust Bruno”, Maestro thought grimly.

The zombie they had been looking for was in the building and had come home, and gone out again. Bing had the ground floor covered. Bruno was keeping a lid on things in the courtyard. The net was in place, all they had to do was pull the strings.

Maestro left Jack’s apartment. He walked to the elevators, slowing his step at each door and listening for tell-tale moans.

“Who knows? Might have had a girlfriend in the building.”

Maestro was not worried about finding Jack. He knew they’d catch him, there was knowing left but patience.

“still omw… bad traffic”, Bing’s message caught Maestro by surprise.

“What? He should already be back.”

Maestro sent Bing a single note, “k”. He’d have to cover the ground-floor until Bing got in gear. He pushed the down elevator button, and tapped his foot while waiting.

“This dog better stop being bad. I am near the end of my rope.”

Maestro rapped his cane sharply on the rubber floor. It was never the zombie you were looking for that caused trouble, but the one you didn’t see coming.

DING!

The elevator doors slid open. A mass of shambling limbs and dripping core tumbled through the doors with a groan, falling face first into Maestro.

“Blurgle-raargh!”

Ray Wharton said...

While I was off herding sheep and goats I had the luxury of spending each day contemplating future fiction worlds. If you need a lot of reflection time for the kind of writing you are interested in, you could do much much worse than to get a herd to follow around all day. Once you learn the basics of where the canyons and draws are which a sheep might get lost in each day becomes very free for day dreaming.

Since getting back to the world with electricity and indoor plumbing my mind has been much more of a mess than normal... I lost my tolerance for modernity out on the mesas. Just in the last couple of days am I re-acclimating to the vile static of machines, especially the one which connects me to this wonderful blog of yours.

I appreciate this post very much, and enjoying day dreaming as much as I do strengthening my prose might be a way to share the rewards of day dreaming with my friends and possibly even innocent bystanders. I think of my self of being pretty good already at coming up with some real written gems, but as of yet lacking practice at arranging those little jewels into a larger piece. I do believe I have the elements of style somewhere on my bookshelf and will take it out for my evening reading.

Mean while this is a good time to announce my new blog I started. http://henemum.blogspot.com/
Here I will be writing about the future fantasy world I dreamt up while herding sheep. Since what is captivating to me is the more zoomed out intergenerational view of the world, I am working on a literary conceit to present stories from many different places and era as part of one whole by way of developing a narrator character from further in the future than the events I am most interested in. Right now I have a little introduction up, and the first narrative set in the world of Henemum culture should be up in a day or two, if I take the advice to wait a while before editing it for posting. I hope that some folks will find the themes explored in this act of world building interesting.

Thank you again JMG for this post on education, I will try to put it to good use.

Bob said...

My high school English teacher enjoyed my writing style and awarded me high marks. It felt encouraging and I enjoyed writing, but I did not choose writing as a career. I never found a career.

@madmagic
The gauntlet has been dropped. Show yourself!

Esn said...

The thing is, I personally can appreciate both your style and the one that commenter last week recommended you adopt. Regarding the latter, it seems to be the "house style" of the very popular comedy/social commentary website Cracked.com, and one of its more interesting "tricks" is that it can sometimes introduce complicated or thoughtful ideas through the back door of writing that seems like easy-to-digest popcorn on the outside (in other cases, of course, it's exactly as vapid as it appears). At it's best, it's a bit like... introducing philosophy in cartoon form: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2292
For example, one of their really good articles recently was this one, which through typical easily-digestible popcorn-like language introduces some really important problems in contemporary society: http://www.cracked.com/article_24392_7-times-companies-destroyed-world-and-got-away-with-it.html

One of the most interesting "tricks" I notice in your writing, on the other hand, is that you tend to disarm a reader's potential rejection and criticism of any particular ideas by adding in a phrase like "but this is only one part of a broader issue" or "but there's more to this than what was just said" - immediately the reader imagines "well, that's good, maybe he acknowledges whatever concern I just had about the thing he wrote". And by the same method, you encourage a reader to keep reading to find out what the "big picture" is, including by promising that the big picture is to come in next week's post. I think this is a big part of why your more verbose style also works so well at keeping me interested in reading it -- because it puts me into a philosophical mindset in which I'm more open to that more encompassing style, whereas with the more bite-sized, list-based Cracked.com pieces, I tend to read them more by scanning the articles quickly, jumping over any stupid jokes or list items that I'm not interested in (their bite-sized and easy-to-scan format allows me to safely jump ahead to the next section), sometimes stopping for a long time on certain things that are incongruous to the popcorny surface style.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Hi JMG

When writing, I too start with a draft to capture the ideas, then rehash, sometimes ditching entire paragraphs, or reordering for improved flow. Agree that getting it down and editing are separate exercises.

From my study assignment days, I've also found the discipline of working down to word limits - lopping off 10, maybe 20%, sometimes helps to further sharpen the text. And if it's intended for publication, a few proff reeders are always advisable - one can get too immersed and blinded to remaining errors.

Especially so for we Brits wrongly reliant on US Spell Checker software which lurks in our laptops. For a nasty moment there, I thought you'd misspelt 'skilful', but on further investigation, I see that you Merigans spell that one differently too. Two nations divided by a common language, indeed...

cheers

Mustard

Mike said...

Random Prose Trolls - great name for a band!

PatriciaT said...

JMG - I very much enjoy your style of writing. Among other qualities, it is thought provoking (definitely needed this day and age in our culture). Many of the comments made in response are thought provoking as well, frequently generate interesting dialog. Thank you.

BTW - I just ordered 'Retrotopia' from a local independent bookstore. The staff expressed their appreciation for the business.

RepubAnon said...

Somehow I'm reminded of a quote from Leslie Charteris - he'd written something for one of his teachers in an English public school. The teacher gave Leslie an F, and told him to give up any hope of becoming a writer.

This is, of course, the Leslie Charteris who wrote all the highly popular "Saint" stories featuring Simon Templar...

Val Seleznev said...

The main reason I have read all of the essays in this blog is the style they are written in. I may have my disagreements with some of the points here or I may (sometimes) guess where the final point of an essay is going to land but I still enjoy reading every single blog post of yours from start to end because I enjoy the way you write them. I would dread the idea of this blog to start following any of the "23.5 ultimate tips on how to write a viral blog post". Thank you very much for not doing it. Thank you!

Cassiodorus said...

For any Archdruid readers in the Pittsburgh area, the Green Wizards of Pittsburgh wish you a happy new year and invite you to join our 2017 activities. In 2016, we learned about herb drying, food preservation, elderberry syrup, cold frames, and more. For 2017 meetings, check out greenwizards.org or send a message to Cassiodorus on that site.

Lisa said...

You do go long, but it's a good long - you go into each thought logically before going to the next thought, without skipping over the bits "we all know" to cut to a single grand conclusion. Since your goal at some level is to get folks to examine the bits we all know, it would kind of defeat the whole purpose to skip them.

I am not a natural writer but have fallen into technical writing; my technique is to imagine what I would expect to be reading and just write that down. In this genre, which is not quite the same as the genre you talk about, I "go long" too - I want to completely avoid any risk of ambiguity. There are folks who will be bored, but they are not the only readers...

Seems like if you know what writing is supposed to look like you don't need to memorize rules, and/or if you are not beholden to someone grading your work you shouldn't have to follow the stupider rules. A little passive voice can be very useful, em dashes are just too long and I can't be having with those punctuation marks inside double quotes.

Pantagruel7 said...

Writer's block killed my college career back in the 1960's. It took me decades to recover. I associate it now with black, hopeless depression. No wonder so many professional writer's are heavy drinkers! Don't let the prose police burn you at the stake, Mr. Greer. One Giordano Bruno is enough.

Patricia Mathews said...

I didn't think I would have to say this, since it seemed self-evident, but yes; I really like your writing style and have no trouble understanding it at all. There are times I didn't understand die to lack of familiarity with the subject matter, but then I read up on the subjects.

The dumbing down goes clear back at least to the year I was born. There is a small incident in To Kill A Mockingbird in which Scout's new teacher tells her to tell her father (or did she write a note?) not to teach her to read, because she was supposed to be reading at her grade level, not above it.

There is a third flaw that crops up in the teaching of English, though not, as I understand it, one young math savants are subject to. That is, letting a verbally gifted child get away with murder because the way s/he writes, in comparison to the rest of the classmates past and present, blows the teacher away. I have to stop and give most humble and hearty thanks to the one high school English teacher who called me on that with the first D in English I ever had in my life. Yes, complete with red marks for grammar and punctuation and fuzzy logic. After I got over the shock, I went up to her and asked her, and her first words were that I could do better than that, here's how and why, go back and rewrite it. I wrote to her standards ever since. I have had A's from college teachers in 200-level courses, but my elderly and distinguished professor in Old English Poetry and Prose did precisely the same thing. I am grateful.

As for writing the garbage the teacher wants - the first thing you learn from experienced published writers, who tend to dominate our local annual science-fiction convention, is that you find out what the editors want and give it to them, but don't let it stop you from writing what you want. And that some criticism is crud. I remember one would-be agent I dropped like a hot rock because, among other things, she said she could not believe in any culture that had tribal societies living next door to spaceports. Noo Yawker, never set foot in New Mexico in her life. She'd have rejected Walter Jon Williams' Day of Atonement on the same grounds, lucky for him he had far better agents than her. So --- if the Business English course (true story - marked down to a B on the testing out for exactly that reason) insists that you write in High Academic Regalian, when I've never seen a businessperson yet who did, roll your eyes and hand it to them. Oh, yes. It's an education --- in how and when one must shovel a bit of the stuff feed lots produce by the ton.

Patricia Mathews said...

@Bruno B.L - if I were describing Twilight's Last Gleaming, I'd call it "A near-future political technothriller, subdivision "If This Goes On."

Patricia Mathews said...

@ Mean Mr Mustard - oh, I so agree! Trimming down to the word limit has eliminated a garbage-can full of wordwooze from just about any paper I have ever written.

Mike said...

I enjoy your writing, although a few of your go-to phrases grate on my ears, like "bids fair to," and "tolerably," (for "somewhat"). There are a few others I can't think of that sound similarly affected. And you use an awful lot of double-negative constructions like "non uncommonly" (which generally means "commonly"). These things sound a but artificial to my ear. But – that's just one reader's taste!
When I recommend your essays to friends, their most common complaint is that you often write at such great length that they don't want to read the whole thing. That doesn't bother me, though.

Michelle said...

Once upon a time, I went to graduate school at age 40 for a MA in English Language and Literature. I did great with deciphering Old English and Old Norse and medieval Latin. I had fun with Chaucer and with Shakespeare. I read all my assigned readings and absorbed their content. But... I kept getting "You really need to work on your writing." No explanations. Nothing.

In my last semester, I took a class cross-listed with Communications. Behold... the very first reading addressed something called "Discourse Communities." Every community (farmers, English grad students, middle school thugs) has its own discourse conventions. Nobody ever acknowledges them. You have to pick them up by osmosis. Apparently all the readings I read for content - and it was a slog sometimes, through prolix, verbose, self-congratulatory, inflated word counts - I was meant to have been reading for 'style.' Honestly, I didn't WANT to write the way I had to read. It was ghastly.

At any rate, I did earn the MA, but I was not accepted into the PhD program. Thanks be to the Almighty for small miracles.

M Smith said...

JMG, I knew which keyboard you meant - a species of the genus Piano never occurred to me! That's the second time (in recent memory, I'm sure there were more) you've turned a comment of mine over and showed me how to see my own thought from a different angle.

Your writing style is fearless. Don't change a thing.

Carlos M. said...

@JMG, thank you so much for this post. I especially appreciate the advice on not editing while writing. I myself have tried

giving writing a crack a few times - I have a few pieces of non-fiction writing that are online in various places dating back

to 2001. Although I have written on-and-off, it has never become a regular thing for me, mainly because of my frustration at

my own writer's block. I waste large amounts of time compulsively editing what I just wrote, which often results in me

forgetting the main thought in the first place. In fact, I'm struggling just to keep myself from editing this comment while

writing it.

As a result, I have a lot of scattered random thoughts for possible essay topics in my Google Keep notes. And I have a

backlog of about a year of those but I've never gotten around to actually writing about them. I'm not a huge fan of new-

year's resolutions (every day is a good day to resolve to improve), but this year I will try to get at least one essay up

every month. I will definitely take your advice to read up The Elements of Style.

Esn here mentioned Cracked.com - ADR and Cracked are two of the websites where I waste a lot of time at work... I mean, where

I spend leisure reading time. A lot of the Cracked stuff are mediocre, but a surprising number of them are real gems. And the

signal:noise ratio is even better than mainstream news-and-opinion sites (which reflects more on the latter than on Cracked).

It just goes to show that there isn't a one-size-fits-all style that's good for everything!

Speaking of bad habits of contemporary thinking, one thing I noticed about modern "education" is the tendency to (attempt to)

reduce everything into mechanistic, bullet-point prescriptions. It's more than just writing and politics:

* Personal finance: "What percentage of my income to I have to save in order to retire at (absurdly young age) with (absurd

amounts of money)? Which stocks should I invest in?"
* Career: "What should I put on my resume and cover letter, and what answers do I need to give in the interview, so I can get

the job? What projects should I take on so that I will get the big raise and get promoted to VP?"
* Fitness and nutrition: Which [trendy superfoods] do I need to eat? Which [ingredients of dietary elements] do I need to

avoid? Which 'targeted exercises' do I need to perform and for how long, so that I will get those six-pack abs?"

And it goes on and on. Being a new dad, my current pet peeve has got to be "parenting" advice. I tell my wife (even before we

got married), that 90% of parenting advice is crap. Not because they're bad advice per se, but mostly because it's

inapplicable to the situation. Parents and kids are people (whoa, imagine that!) with their own quirks and what works for one

family may not work for another. Even within families, with each parent applying their own "style", each individual child is

treated in a different manner according to their own needs and temperament.

Entire industries have sprung up to cater to the huge modern appetite for this canned, package-deal advice. Consultants charge huge money to give people such powerpoint-presentation advice. Books are published to expound each bullet point into their own chapter (mostly repetitive fluff). You can create your own product and have it "reviewed" by the field's "authorities", so that they can mark it Certified (tm). You can even go through their remarkably expensive training programs so that you can be a Certified(tm) Consultant yourself, and be able to sign your emails with your "credentials". It's very telling that the comment from the Random Prose Troll (RPT (tm)), which triggered this very post, offered credentials that are "verifiable on request".

Sincerely,

Carlos M., RPT, LOL, IMO, BBQ, WTF

foodnstuff said...

Thanks for an interesting post, somewhat off the usual topics. I never learned to write at school, by which I mean how to write so as to put information and ideas down on paper in a logical and interesting manner. I'd love to do a creative writing course. I do recognise that you have a particular style (which I obviously like or I wouldn't have continued reading for so long).

I write a food-growing/energy decline blog and just write what comes out of my head. I don't even think about 'style', however I was pleased to note that I'm apparently doing the right thing re editing—I leave posts in the drafts folder for a few days, going back and back over them till I'm happy to hit the publish button.

Bonnie Glassford said...

JMG, I love your style, that's why I read your blog. Please don't change a thing. And wouldn't you know it: I graduated summa cum laude from the McNitpick School of Grammar Curmudgeonry, where our principal textbook was Strunk and White. Your grammar and prose are lovely; I support them entirely.

Rene said...

Archdruid,

There's an interesting piece (and following commentary) on Strunk and White in Mike Johnson's excellent photography blog, The Online Photographer - http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2016/12/it-was-the-best-of-times-or-maybe-it-wasnt-ot.html (Tuesday, December 20, 2016)

For all you non-photographers, this is one of the two or three most outstanding blogs on the internet on photography (as well as other related and non related topics as Mike allows himself an "Off Topic" blog about once a week). Mike is a a very good writer and taking a look at a few of his points illustrates the points made by the Archdruid about different writing styles for different topics quite well.

Rene

weedananda said...

Hi JMG,

It was with considerable wry indignation that I read the writing advice column you received several weeks ago. A red flag was blazing right from the start when the author boasted "I'm also a published print writer, who has accomplished even more on the Internet. I've lost count of how many tens of millions of people the non-profit that I founded helped. With trivial government or corporate funding, for just over a decade." What was the nature of the valuable help delivered? Tens of millions? The last sentence isn't even a sentence! Mrs. McNitpick would be appalled! The best thing to come out of it was today's post (which I've forwarded to my daughter, an aspiring writer).

I had never come across Sturgeon's Law...my only quibble is that 95% might be too generous. You, esteemed Archdruid emeritus, are surely among the peerless 1% in my book. I'm so thankful you have chosen not to write stilted, choppy, dumbed-down journalistic prose...that's best left to phoneys and twits when they require more than 140 characters. Oscar Wilde's famous utterance "Everything popular is wrong."comes to mind.

All the best for a prosperous, healthy New Year.

Jim

greg simay said...

Hi JMG,

I enjoy your essays very much (since last year.) They've enlarged my thinking.

Have you ever written an essay touching on "the secret space program," or more generally, the hoarding of "advanced technology" in a few hands? As someone who also had a lot of youthful hope for space exploration in the 60's, it's intriguing to think that it may still be going on. Some researchers, including Joseph Farrell, Richard Dolan, Catherine Austin-Fitts, make a good case that it is. Gibson said, "The future is here, but it's unequally distributed." Maybe it's more unequal than we think.

But, a more interesting question might be this: Suppose we did have zero-point energy, the ability to nano-engineer a common material like silicon into any number of materials that can mimic the properties of rare metals, etc. etc. Would it in fact deliver a utopia of peace and prosperity or instead a banquet of unintended consequences? Are the real breakthroughs to be had in a greater understanding of the nature of consciousness?

I've read any number of authors who make a case that the cornucopians are wrong as a matter of fact, but haven't yet come across anyone explicitly arguing that they are wrong as a matter of principle.

But whatever topic strikes your fancy, look forward to reading your take on it every Wednesday evening.

Happy 2017,

Greg

Clay Dennis said...

I have found that to a great degree you write similer to what you read. My Freshman year in engineering school I was required to take a number of arts school classes in english, philosophy etc, and was handed a copy of Strunk and White during orientation. I even took english in the same classroom where William Strunk had taught EB White many years earlier, guided by the stern busts of the two great writers looking down upon me. And during that year I became a passable writer (for an engineer). But then I spent the next two years taking nothing but engineering and science classes and reading the horrible prose that is contained is such books to the exclusion of almost everything else due to the work load. But then I once again had to write real english senior year and my writing had deteriorated to the same dreck found in engineering texts. My writing slowly improved as I regularly read real books and wrote real paragraphs. So I imagine if one reads nothing but People magazine, CNN.com and the Huffington Post the writing style that your favorite writing Troll recomends would come naturally.

MawKernewek said...

I dread to think what the style police would say about my blog: Skrifennow.
Publication is irregular in interval, with topic seemingly randomly shifting from Mars, to Cornish language (occasionally with entire posts in Cornish) and natural language processing. The length of posts varies considerably, from the recent one making little sense if read on its own, to the extremely long post about letter frequencies in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Archdruid Report at least publishes on a regular schedule, which I see has built up a following over time, with comments going to a second page more often than not these days. Some people would say that in our immediate world, you need to publish daily, or more than daily, but actually someone who followed that path eventually burns out and gives up, or even if they can keep the pace the blog becomes more knee-jerk reactive than the more broadly scoped narratives often explored here.

@JasonHeppenstall - anywhere I can buy the print copy without contributing to the Amazon monoculture and their questionable business practices?

heather said...

Yep, many writing tests are scored by machines these days. And many teachers are evaluated based on the scores their students produce on these tests. Neither good writing, nor good teaching itself are practices that are easy to teach others how to do or to evaluate. Anyone who thinks either should be simple, especially in the current context, should try it sometime.
--Heather in CA

Tower 440 said...

Greetings to the assembled Wizardren!
The Spring joint meeting of the Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association, Tower Number 440, and Ruinmen’s Guild, Local 440 will be held at 12:30 PM on Saturday, March 18, 2017. Our location is Ruko’s Family Restaurant, 9385 Mentor Avenue, Mentor, Ohio 44060, (440) 974-1914. Shining the Green Light! Public Welcome! Tables for Failed Scholars. Look for the table topper with the Green Wizard Hat. Contact us at GWTower440@gmail.com.
Our speaker will be Green Wizard Gene Ainsworth, the first member of Tower 440 to travel with a GWB&PA issued “passport.” (Email us for the template.) Gene will report on his People to People trip to Cuba, particularly his research and interviews with the Cuban People to learn about how they have coped with the difficulties, of the electrical grid, lack of utilities and refrigeration.
Many thanks to John for the posting space on his blog.

Cortes said...

Odd that Alexander Carpenter shares a name with my favourite author, the great Cuban Alejo Carpentier whose Los Pasos Perdidos ("The Missing Steps ") is just sublime. NB, usually translated as The Lost Steps.

A magnificent essay, Sir: thank you.

While away for a month I'll try to put pen to paper and squeeze out (express) something I've been considering for too long. Thanks for the jolt!

Finally, "The Lies of Locke Lamora" by Scott Lynch is first class fantasy writing in comparison with Tolkien, in my book.

Good things to you and yours in 2017.

Matt Heins said...

Thanks Archdruid Greer for this good advice. And thanks, in an odd way, to Madmagic last week for prompting the good advice giving.

I was a visual arts focused student and more-or-less actively forgot everything from English class (other than the books we were given to read solely in order to write book reports for the purpose of grading our writing from yet another direction - the similarity of the process to how one might train an office drone to produce and digest memoranda, minutes, and reports was never mentioned, but I digress) as quickly and thoroughly as I could. But having successfully escaped the Academy, I became an insatiable reader and thinker and discourser of and about a fair range of genres, both fiction and nonfiction. And so from time to time I have had thoughts and ideas that I had a bit of a wish to actually write down.

This blog, in fact, has been one stimulus for this desire - especially, of course, the many writing contests.

But, I have never actually gotten anything down, not even a full first draft of short stories that I had pretty much in full in my mind. I've always had plenty of the usual excuses of time, inclination, and worthwhileness, but it was not until I just now read your admonition against editing while writing- even to the point of not looking at what one is writing! - that I understood what exactly what "writer's block" is meant be, and that I suffer from it. So thank you very much indeed!

I believe that I shall be picking up a copy of the style book you recommended and trying my hand (at last) sometime soon. Perhaps I'll start a blog. ;-)

Off Topic: I was quite amused to see an automobile right smack in the focul center of the cover art for Retrotopia, which struck me as the most automobile-less tale of a possible future I have ever read. Is there any kind of story behind this? Does the final version involve more auto transport? Or is it just that the artist was thinking of Cuba?

Just curious.

Dennis Mitchell said...

Language is a struggle for me. Writing hurts. Reading is bliss. Fifth grade i was in lowest reading group, while i was devouring Asimov, Silverberg, and Heinlein. Your use of language is very easy for me to follow. I enjoy the occasional trip to the dictionary or google. The ideas flow and their relationships are apparent.
I was reading some intellectual crud on permaculture the other day. On and on about commons and systems. For some reason he never mentioned plants, compost, insects, soil..He is smart. I must be dumb. I love the "idea" of permaculture, but filtering the bombastic verbosity turns me off.

Izzy said...

I find that I benefited a lot from reading a wide variety of books, having teachers who were severe about grammar/spelling/effect but not strict rules for all occasions*, and King's On Writing. Also useful: TAing a couple of college courses, which gave me a decent idea of the difference between writing long essays that actually say something and padding to make yourself sound smarter (or to meet the required page count--though I always scorned *that* trick in favor of minute font size adjustments, margin tweaking, and *really thorough* citations).

Teachers who expected me to do more than other students because I had more ability met with considerable resistance on my part, though: I was never one for trying to impress the authorities, or for putting in effort for effort's sake, and always got "not working to her potential," which never bugged *me*--what would I get out of that except more work? ;P

* There is A Thing that crops up in amateur fiction where someone's teacher clearly told them that "serious writing doesn't use contractions" and then their stories don't and it kills me.

Sheila Grace said...

Hola, Rob, dude you must be one important-highly-stressed-out-person, and smart too, scan away as in get to the point ain't nobody got time for picking that high hanging fruit. Dear JMG, at home I'm known as superlative girl, and rightly so, anyways...not enough of 'em to explain how much I love your writing, both in content, setup, and delivery; week to week the statement that gets the smile is "it's AD day". Wow, it's really been quite the month for the Meyers-Briggs SJ literary moral gatekeepers of style though, huh? Dang, just like my pool shooting blues singing friend Elsa used to say; it's a lot like it is, and less like it isn't as far as some readers go, and to everyone else; happy new year to all those that look forward to the AD as much as we do.

Carlos M. said...

Speaking of machine-scored essays, there is one unfortunate side-effect of applying the condensed journalistic style across the board: it leaves you vulnerable to the plagiarism witch-hunters.

Here in the Philippines, the Presidential Communications Minister Martin Andanar recently suggested that President Duterte should be taken "seriously, not literally." Not soon after, upper-crust yuppie online tabloid Rappler published a story that Andanar's phrase is "not too original", as it was used by in an Atlantic article a few months back. It stops short of accusing Mr. Andanar of plagiarism, though it implies that we're not supposed to take anything he says seriously because he copied a phrase from The Atlantic. I remember reading that Atlantic article a few months back and Andanar's press release did remind me of it. I thought nothing of it, honestly. Mr. Duterte and Mr. Trump are extremely colorful characters that have often been compared to each other. And "seriously, not literally" is a useful way of approaching both men's words. How many ways can you express that thought in such a condensed manner? Mr. Duterte's government has not been without its problems. His opponents nitpicking his boys on trivial stuff like this just makes people think that the opposition are a bunch of petty whiners, and takes away discussion from the real, substantial issues.

This also reminds me of the recent Oracle vs. Google lawsuit, where Oracle accused Google of copying several thousand lines of code. Coding, as per JavaScript guru Doug Crockford, is just writing in computer language. One particular example is downright ridiculous: nine lines of an extremely simple boundary check that any first-year com-sci student can write. Oracle demanded $9 billion for the alleged copyright infringement, and lost (rightly, in my mind).

As implied in this post, writers are heavily influenced and nothing that gets written is completely original. This leads us to the contradiction: we have to condense everything to the simplest, twittable length. However, it reduces all of our complex thoughts into lengths where it's very hard - if not impossible - to communicate any nuance whatsoever. What happens is that everyone sounds exactly the same. As a result, the Internet consists of millions of paragraphs of exactly the same things said over and over. What a waste.

Just like essay scoring, plagiarism checking can be done online automatically now. Take your pick: https://www.google.com.ph/search?q=online+plagiarism+checker

siliconguy said...

"But then I spent the next two years taking nothing but engineering and science classes and reading the horrible prose that is contained is such books to the exclusion of almost everything else due to the work load."

Now that sounds familiar. The engineering professors wanted everything strictly in passive voice. The English professors abhorred passive voice above all else. There was no way to please both at once. And just to make it more fun, I was unlearning Navy writing at the time. (Right, way, wrong way, Navy way.)

I find our host's writing clear and easy to follow. Other writing I like is Isaac Asimov and Lois McMaster Bujold. The latter has some great phrases like " thinking sideways both directions at once" and " a look of Very Limited Amusement ".

Dylan said...

This one made me grin. A magician never reveals the secrets of their trade, but maybe mages do.

One outcry from the nerd gallery: the Latin noun educatio is derived from the verb educare, to raise (as in children or crops), not from educere, to lead out. The English word that means 'to lead out' is eduction, which we derive from educere. My copy of Wheelock tells me in no uncertain terms not to confuse the two verbs.

This became important for Ivan Illich when he started to question modern assumptions about what education is and why all people everywhere apparently need it. According to him, Cicero uses the verbs instruere and docere to designate activities performed by learned teachers. Educare was associated with wet-nurses and educere with midwives.

Apparently Tertullian was the first person to use educare in connection with a male subject, and he did so by saying metaphorically that Christians drink the milk of faith from the breasts of learned bishops, all of whom were of course men. The metaphor of the Catholic Church as the universal nurturer seems to be the origin of the (previously laughable) idea that institutionalized learning, aka education, aka breastfeeding, is a universal necessity.

A fun corollary of this metaphor is that although the Latin word alumnus has come to mean in English 'a product of any educational institute', its literal meaning is 'nurseling', or just 'sucker'.

The North Coast said...

Most critical readers who have been exposed to your blog, consider it to be a literary masterpiece.

In fact, the elegance and precision of your writing is one of your principal draws for me. Your ideas and originality are the other attractions.

Please don't ever change or "dumb down" your beautiful writing.

Robert Mathiesen said...

When I read a new post on either of our host's two blogs, it is as though I and he are exploring some little-traveled woodland togther, walking leisurely down a faint trail to see what we may see, occasionally turning a rock over with our walking-sticks, and discussing what we see under it for a while. I am not seeking new information or facts, testable hypotheses or advanced theories when I come here, but the intellectual adventure of getting to know an uncommonly profound mind.

If it were otherwise, I would stamp each new post here with a dismissive "ts; dr" = "too short; didn't read."

One of my greatest disappointments, decades ago when I was still an active academic, was the afternoon when I traveled to to another university hear Elizabeth Eisenstein lecture on the grand themes of her great book, _The Printing Press as an Agent of Change_ (1979). Her lecture turned out to be a quick and competent, yet shallow, summary of her book. So I looked forward eagerly to the long discussion that was scheduled to follow.

Yet the discussion period was, if possible, even more disappointing than her lecture. She treated each question asked, each point raised, as an opponent's serve in some fast-moving weird game of scholarly tennis, to be returned as quickly and efficiently as possible. It soon became apparent that she had no interest whatever in either discussing or elaborating on her lecture, on her book, or indeed on any question of scholarly interest. All she felt like doing, it seemed, was scoring "points" off each next member of her audience.

Madmagic, your writing advice brought the memory of that wasted afternoon back to mind sharply. If you are still reading these comments, know that posts written to your formula would all be stamped "ts; dr." I do not read for information. I read for the companionship of another interesting mind. Our host here gives me that in abundance.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I was fortunate to have parents who were readers, spoke grammatically correct English, and had large vocabularies. I became a bookworm as soon as I was taught to read. I picked up writing style by osmosis. My formal education happened in the mainframe era. My teachers mostly graded on length, spelling, grammar and punctuation. Apart from how to outline, I don't remember receiving much instruction about how to organize a piece of writing and nothing on style. I suppose more of that is required now because children read very little for pleasure these days, nor do they read daily newspapers.

I can see that learning the rule-bound kind of exposition Jason Heppenstall's daughter was taught might be a useful literary exercise like imitating the prose style of Cicero or Emerson, but it's not where I would start. I worked out my own methods for composing and editing prose.

I like writing in essay or article length. Past three hundred words, I usually find out what I think about a topic in the course of writing the first couple of drafts. When the second draft is finished, many of the paragraphs I wrote first will turn out to be digressions. After they are cut, everything else will have to be put in a different order to make the argument easier to follow.

I tend to write in a highly subordinated style. Most sentences in this comment have multiple verbs or gerunds in them. I talk like that too. Since this is not the nineteenth century, most of my readers are not going to have the patience to follow the thread of a sentence that looks like it was translated from Latin or Greek, so I divide it if I can do so without losing the sense. I count eight verbs in the previous sentence, but I like it so it is staying in.

I hunt for unnecessary passive voice and any kind of pompous phrase (e.g. "I have a tendency to write") and try to say the same thing in plain English. I weed out dead metaphors; often these are embedded in single words and an interest in etymology helps to spot them. I'll use a long or unusual word if it's the word I need, but not to show off. Posting comments on lively blogs has taught me to look for overstatements and arguing beyond the evidence, since I'll get called on that.

thenoteswhichdonotfit said...

Just this evening, my father said "When I finished the book by that Druid guy, I thought I'd forget about it quickly. However, lately I've been thinking a lot about some of the things that book said." The book he was referring to was After Progress.

Robo said...

Thank you for this insightful creative writing lesson!

I'm reminded here that my own writing style took an unfortunate turn back in 1982 when I bought an Apple computer. The newfound ability to write and edit at the same time surely short-circuited my left and right brains to the extent that my manual typewriter-era work seems like it was written by an entirely different and much more interesting person than the rigid and perfectionistic "word processor" that I morphed into.

It's time to unplug.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20170105T050639Z


Dear JMG.


Thanks for this. I might post an additional comment or two in the next couple of days.

Today, I remark hastily that I agree with your various points, and that I have some 2003 suggestions of my own - some readers might still find them helpful - at http://www.metascientia.com/PNNN____lit/PNNN____logic_blueprints.html (essay headed "Logic Blueprints Take the Stress out of Writing Nonfiction"). On Strunk and White, I write the following in that 2003 essay: We must add to our general diet of reading a book or two about the actual craft of writing. All the authorities are fulsome in their praise of Strunk and White's Elements of Style. It's clear why: we really do have to trim away unnecessary words, we really do have to stop writing "begin"/"large"/"spectre" where the plain Anglo-Saxon "start"/"big"/"thing" will get our idea across; and Prof. William Strunk, Jr., now posthumously helped by E.B. White, has been explaining the knack for about eight decades.

Thanks also for your two helpful private e-mails this week, as I deal with some worries regarding (1) your recent Syria-Clinton assessment, (2) the http://www.propornot.com list of pro-Putin sites, and (3) my own putative emerging experience of surveillance by FSB/GRU/SVR or cognate parties. I have written everything up, paraphrasing a key point from your e-mail in what I hope is a fair and adequately full way, and going into a lot of detail on the FSB/GRU/SVR spooklight, in my most recent posting at http://toomaskarmo.blogspot.com. The posting is headed "Troll Farms (55 Savushkina Ulitsa?) and Mainstream Media".


Rapidly, having now to get to bed,


Tom = Toomas Karmo

(in Estonian diaspora, 20 km north of downtown Toronto, Canada)

PatOrmsby said...

I suspect someone is just jealous of you! But thank you for this essay on writing! I'll read through it once more once I get back to Japan (atmosphere in Internet cafe provokes arrhythmia in me). Fascinating: no wonder I Always come back here for a look at my comments and smack myself in the face! I really need a least two hours between writing something and editing it. even my spelling! *grand face smack*
I was figger'n you'd do another New Year's prediction today, the last one being so successful. I don't do much prophesying, though other priests and priestesses do a lot, since it is popular. But the first dream of the new year (reckoned to be on the morning of the 2nd) is said in Japan to be prophetic and I find my own to be such. Normally, these are quite personal, and I don't share them. Some say you shouldn't share them or they won't come true, but I do not find that to be the case. This year's concerns you, and in quite a good way. I will write it out carefully and post it in a couple of weeks, edited, and probably completely off topic. But rest assured, Mr. Greer, that your efforts are having a great and good impact.

lordyburd said...

Bravo Mr.Greer! Quite the amusing (and informative) essay. The quirky humour in it reminded me of "A Christmas Speculation". I wonder, why?

Berserker said...

As a college writing instructor I generally agree, but I must note that sometimes there is a synergy between the editing and writing parts of the brain-at least for me. It’s not common though, and best described as a highly focused and trance-like “zone.”

However, I shall leave the ontology of the Muses to the philosophers-or the other blog.

Also, teaching to the test for No Child Left Behind was clearly associated with a noticeable change in freshman writing styles-a veritable tsunami of procrustean five-paragraph essays…

Zachary Braverman said...

I'm a professional writer, and I've always thought you write marvelously. Your writing is clear, elegant, and fun to read. Best of all, it makes complex concepts easy to understand without dumbing them down. Anybody who faults your prose is a hack.

John Michael Greer said...

Dudley, thank you. Your daughters are lucky to have you as their father, I'd say.

Aron, congrats! I hope your book finds its audience and does well.

Peter, nah, Bruno went out of his way to get tied to that stake. I admire his style, and I'm just finishing up a translation of his main book on the art of memory, On the Shadows of the Ideas, but I try to be a little less domgeorn than he was -- that's usually translated "eager for glory," but Tolkien points out that its literal meaning is "doom-eager," rushing enthusiastically on to the messy fate the Norns have lined up for you.

Bruno, that's a bit challenging. It's basically a political-military thriller, but I took the unspoken rule of political-military thrillers -- the status quo always wins -- and stood it on its head. I don't know if anyone else is doing that sort of thing.

Avery, research-based journals are a whole different kettle of fish. The publishers know that professors are so desperate to rack up publications in the hope of getting tenure that they can exploit the professoriat mercilessly. The kind of journal I have in mind is usually photocopied and staplebound, and has some kind of vaguely evocative name -- the local example, put out by the writing program at Frostburg State University up the hill from where I live, is Backbone Mountain Review. (To be fair, it's better than many.) You don't get much boost to your CV from having a story or a poem there, so they aren't as ruthless as Routledge!

Raymond, you're welcome and thank you. I appreciate the data points from someone who's on the scene -- up here in Gringostan we tend to get a very distorted idea of what's going on on your side of the big river.

Dltrammel, agreed! The fact that we get five whole percent of non-crap seems pretty decent to me, all things considered.

Unknown, nope. If you want a critique, go to a critic. I've already offered my advice, which you're free to accept or reject as you choose.

Ray, glad to hear it. Writing online has its annoyances (like style trolls) but it also has some serious advantages; I hope your new blog works well for you.

Bob, so noted. I didn't really find a career, either -- it more or less found me.

Esn, I have no argument with that at all. I can enjoy things written in popcorn style, too -- I just don't choose to write this blog that way.

Mustard, agreed. The discipline of cutting out extra words is a very good exercise, though it can be taken to unhelpful extremes, and I also use proofreaders when I can.

John Michael Greer said...

Mike, funny. I like it.

PatriciaT, delighted to hear it. I encourage everyone who lives within range of an independent bookstore to buy your books there -- it keeps income in your community, and bookstores that get requests routinely order an extra copy for the shelf, so that your favorite authors get a shot at more sales.

RepubAnon, there are scores of stories like that. I wonder how often the teachers succeed in crushing an aspiring talent; based on what I've seen and heard, it's a fairly common thing.

Val, you're most welcome.

Lisa, a lot depends on who you have to cope with. As a professional writer, I do have to pay attention to where punctuation goes, keep passive voice under strict control, and the like, but that's because I'm going to have a copy editor going over my manuscript and messing with things. If you don't have to worry about that -- why, it's only been a couple of hundred years since spelling and punctuation first started being standardized at all, and I suspect we're on our way back out of that...

Pantagruel, nah, they're the ones who end up suffering from the occasional scorch mark!

Patricia, oh, I get that. I have to get past editors' fixations and hangups all the time -- though fortunately I've never had to put up with an agent; there are a lot of genres where they are neither necessary nor useful. Still, it's amazing what you can slide past editors so long as they think they're getting what they want!

Mike, oh, I know. I like ornate prose, and yes, that's going to sound forced to some people. As for your friends, I wonder if it's ever occurred to them that I write at this kind of length partly to keep the shallow-minded from reading my stuff and flattening out my ideas into twitter bait...

Michelle, yep. You escaped a dire fate. I bet you can still write, too!

M Smith, not to worry. I don't influence easily. ;-)

Carlos, I'd seriously recommend that you try writing with the screen turned off. Don't let yourself see what you're writing, and keep at it for 15 minutes a day. That's how I broke myself out of incipient writer's block some 25 years ago, and I've never looked back.

Foodnstuff, in that case, don't worry about writing courses. Just keep writing, try to make each post as good as it can be, and pay attention to how writing you enjoy handles the language, and you'll do well.

John Michael Greer said...

Bonnie, thank you!

Rene, and the sort of thing he's critiquing is a great example of how NOT to use Strunk & White. It's a manual of clear readable expository English prose, not a guide to creative literature; you learn its rules, and then you head out into the unknown region.

Weedananda, yes, I noted the same thing. Despite the loud self-praise, the commentwasn't exactly a sterling recommendation for its author's services.

Greg, what I've read of the so-called "secret space program" et al. seems very unconvincing to me. Still, you've raised a very interesting point: even if we had all these wonder technologies, would they produce Utopia, or would they yield an even bigger mess than the one we've got already? Thanks for posing that; I'll consider a post on the subject.

Clay, oh, granted. Another reason to read stuff written before you were born!

MawKernewek, one of the things I've found most interesting is that I've built a career and an audience by systematically breaking every rule that you're supposed to follow to market yourself on the internet. I don't post daily; I don't write short snappy posts; I don't obsessively get involved in every case of contagious mental hiccups to come lurching through the internet; I don't include cute kitten photos; I write long, involved, ornate posts on abstruse and unpopular subjects and publish books that are even more esoteric -- and yet I'm doing rather better than okay, while a lot of people who are following the rules are spinning their wheels. In the immortal words of Harriet the Hamster Princess, "Who made these rules anyway?"

Heather, you'll never hear either claim from me. Teaching is fiendishly difficult work, harder even than writing.

Cortes, you're welcome and thank you. I don't think I've encountered Lynch -- but then I more or less abandoned current fantasy fiction a while ago, after one too many canned Dark Lords et al.

Matt, I hope it helps! As for the Retrotopia cover, there were cars in Toledo in the episodes posted here, just not many of them; I like the juxtaposition of the car, the electric trolley, the horsedrawn cab, and the pedestrians.

Dennis, it takes a good ear for prose to detect windbaggery. I predict that if you ever decide to give it a try, you'll write good clear prose that zooms straight down into the nitty gritty and leaves the reader knowing something real.

Izzy, I routinely got told that I wasn't working to my potential, too, and I smiled and thought, "Like I'm going to waste my potential following orders from you?" But then I used to write fiction in dull classes, and the teachers thought I was taking really detailed notes and gave me better grades than I deserved.

John Michael Greer said...

Carlos, that's an excellent point! If you write like everybody else, yes, you write like everybody else, and that has exactly the consequence you've sketched out. I doubt anybody else in the world writes like me, which helps avoid such confusions.

Dylan, one of the basic job skills mages learn is that of telling your secrets right out there in public, knowing full well that the only people who will pay attention are the ones who are ready to learn. Speaking of which, thank you for the Latin note!

North Coast, thank you.

Robert, I love ts; dr! I feel that way about a lot of writing -- and yes, I've also experienced lectures like the one you describe. I took to using the phrase "Grok the shallowness" on such occasions...

Deborah, and what on earth is wrong with cascades of verbs and gerunds? ;-)

Notes, please pass on my thanks to your father. That's a high compliment.

Robo, different writers thrive on different technologies. I know people who are at their best when they do the first draft in ink on notebook paper. I'm embarrassed to say that word processors are actually good for me; I like to revise dozens of times, trying out different phrasings and vocabulary, and the word processor makes that so much less trying that my prose comes out better. If you find that a typewriter is your best friend, though, go ye forth and do that thing.

Toomas, you're welcome and thank you. Then, of course, once you've learned to trim out the fancy words, it's time to try putting some of them back in, and play deliberately with the effect!

PatOrmsby, glad to be of service. I'll be interested to hear about your dream.

LordyBurd, gosh, I'm sure I don't know. ;-)

Berserker, some people can do that, especially after lots of practice. In my experience, most can't, and beginners in particular can mess themselves over big time by making the attempt.

Zachary, thank you!

Unknown said...

JMG, Thanks for the sharing of knowledge and wisdom. Especially the bit about editing as you write, which I now recognise as my particular vice. Keep up the most excellent work.

Of topic, but an interesting straw in the wind was observed yesterday on the Aussie ABC, state radio. They were interviewing a UK professor whop had been exploring the subject of "built in obscelesence" and whether its cost was worth the returns it brings. I have been wondering for the last couple of years when that particular bit of stupidity would get caught up with.

Cheers

eagle eye

jessi thompson said...

To Blogger greg simay:

You said:

"But, a more interesting question might be this: Suppose we did have zero-point energy, the ability to nano-engineer a common material like silicon into any number of materials that can mimic the properties of rare metals, etc. etc. Would it in fact deliver a utopia of peace and prosperity or instead a banquet of unintended consequences? Are the real breakthroughs to be had in a greater understanding of the nature of consciousness?

I've read any number of authors who make a case that the cornucopians are wrong as a matter of fact, but haven't yet come across anyone explicitly arguing that they are wrong as a matter of principle."

This is an excellent question. Here is the very best answer I have found.

Arithmetic, Population and Energy - a talk by Al Bartlett
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O133ppiVnWY

I would love to tell you what I think would happen, but I don't want to rob you of that intellectual journey. If you would like to repay me for this information.... might I recommend just a penny doubling on a chessboard? ;)

As far as the rewards of studying consciousness, I would say that's probably the only thing we have access to that really is infinite.

Sincerely,
Jessi Thompson
anotheramethyst

jessi thompson said...

Archdruid Greer,

Your post on writing parallels my experience with the visual arts. There are tons of rules for visual art. Teachers teach the rules slavishly but they don't punish you for breaking them skillfully, because the history of art is the history of rules being systematically established and then broken. When you study art, you learn that you can't break a rule until you understand what it's for. Once you understand the rule, you can break it freely because you will naturally break it in a skillful way, by addressing the problem the rule solves in a completely different way, or by using the broken rule as its own element. You can't just run around breaking rules willy nilly! I would argue you don't really understand the rule until you've found a way to break it with skill. Ultimately, it comes down to the question "What is the purpose of this rule? What is it accomplishing?" It's unfortunate that writing has become so rigidly enforced while the visual arts have gone off on quite the opposite sort of tangent.

Thanks again for a fascinating read!
Sincerely,

Jessi Thompson
anotheramethyst

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Patricia M, Bonnie,

No Wordwoozle at the McNitpick School of Grammar Curmudgeonry!

To use the Merigan vernacular, those are keepers!

cheers

Mustard

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Thanks for writing this essay. A mate of mine recommended your blog to me many long years ago now (last decade actually – can you believe it is 2017? Far out!) when I was in the very early days of my adventure, and I have enjoyed your writing ever since. I like the way that you cover complex ground by attacking the edges of ideas, circling around and looking for the weaknesses or the inconsistencies, or to be really honest, the total absurdities. And there have been a few of those over the years that you've highlighted, hasn't there? :-)! Did you know that nature works that way too? Perhaps this is why the rats are now enjoying all of my fresh strawberries! Woe is me, I knew the strawberry enclosure required a complete rebuild over the next year. Of course, you gifted us with that tool too by carrying us all along for the ride, and it is a very useful tool indeed! I don’t believe that any other method available on the interweb would have achieved the same result?

My English teacher in the final year of High School thought that I was too arrogant and perhaps he was correct. But I'll tell ya this, I used to get quite narky about creative essays because he'd ask for one. I'd write one – oh yeah, it was creative alright - and then he'd say to me that is worth a D which is a mark just above fail. Not quite a fail, but you can smell failure from there. And then, me being me, I'd ask him, alright how did you mark this creative essay, because it was creative – that is what you asked for. And then inevitably after a grumpy session, I'd end up in detention for being a smarty pants and questioning the authorita! English was my worst subject in High School, everything else I got A's for... Go figure that one out.

I was considering the limits of the internet last week in the comments section. I can work with people either individually or in groups when it is face to face and the people have dysfunctional behaviours or chronic misconceptions, but this internet thing where all there is are words is a very limited medium. I was toying with that concept last week. I haven’t given up trying but it does seem to be rather a waste of time.

Hey, how good is a skill mage? Did you just make that up? Oooo, I really like it. I don't have any secrets as I tell everyone everything and that saves me a whole lot of problems! ;-)!

Cheers

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi lathechuck,

Mate, I just had a winter exactly like the one that you described. It was extremely tough and people just don't get it. I totally 100% hear you. And I have absolutely no idea how to get that message across. Mate, I even tried a 600W wind generator a few years back only to find that it just wasn't windy enough here... I really worry about this issue.

Hi Rita,

Yup, that heat in your iron is lost energy. And the whole entire system works that way. Every single mile of cable. It is quite frightening and you are very perceptive to have understood it. Well done.

Cheers

Chris

Jason Heppenstall said...

JMG - I hope you're wrong about the SGP, but I suspect you're not!

@MawKernewek Given that you live not too far away I can send you a copy of Seat of Mars if you drop me an email at jasonhepp at gmail.com. For people in N.America the only current option is to go with the link I posted.

Tony Rasmussen said...

Haw this is awesome, someone trying to teach the Archdruid how to write! (Missed the comments last week.) Reminds me of the Amadeus movie, when the Emperor critiques Mozart's music by saying there are 'too many notes'.

You write like someone from the days before the Great War (the first one don't you know), and that is wonderful, plenty of thoughtful people repulsed by the listicle and hungering for something meatier, something we can think our teeth into.

On a side note, was in the Taipei public library the other day, stumbled across a clean copy of Green Wizardry in the stacks ... wonder if the person responsible for putting it there is reading this...?

MawKernewek said...

Only tangentially related to the discussion of your writing style, themoscowtimes.com/photogalleries/soviet-lost-future-filmstrip-56724, other than that some would say your blog should have more pictures.

However past predictions of the future are often interesting, and this is a prediction of 2017 from the 1960s Soviet Union. I imagine there were various predictions of 2017 made in the Soviet Union, and it would be interesting to unearth more. I presume almost all of them, even in dissident literature assumed the continued existance of the Soviet Union at the time of the October Revolution centennial.

Esn said...

Another thought I had concerning writing style:

In the past few years (during which I've been writing mostly my master's thesis and research articles) I've started using a different approach than I had used before. I now start out by laying out all the discrete thoughts, facts and theories that I want to convey, as well as references, in bullet-point form in a .txt file, not worrying at all about style, but only about conciseness - with a new line for each new thought. As I do more research, I gradually edit the file to add new things (so I don't forget them), fix any old ones that need fixing, and rearrange bits as I get a clearer idea for how everything fits together architecturally - what should come first, what is a logical subcategory of what, etc.

Only once I see that the skeleton is all there and is coherent do I begin to place the points into actual sentences and paragraphs and make everything pleasant to read. If I wrote them well, they usually don't need much editing, only some "glue". The hard work feels like it has already been completed and I can go more-or-less on autopilot. Once I started doing this, I noticed that writer's block became a thing of the past.

It is possible that the technique has other negative effects that will become clearer to me with time, though. It's also possible that it's applicable more to research papers than to other sorts of writing.

So, is this a way to avoid writer's block by using completely the opposite advice to the one you gave? Well, not exactly, I think. Both of them separate the editing process from the rough idea-forming process. I used to try writing pretty sentences before I had completely figured out where I wanted to go, and THAT was a real recipe for constant writer's block.

This method is also used by some good music composers. For example, here's a quote from John Corigliano: "For the past three decades I have started the compositional process by building a shape, an architecture, before coming up with any musical material".

Les said...

.
Long way ‘round to a short comment:

Back in the day, I used to import software and hardware from other parts of the once was British Empire. In the course of business, stuff goes wrong and in order to get things fixed, I perfected the ICBE, or Inter-Continental Ballistic E-mail. Days to prepare, nuanced to the finest degree leaving the recipients with one inescapable conclusion: YOU ARE WRONG AND YOU WILL FIX IT.

Worked every time – problem solved in record time and my customers happy. Even the suppliers happy because they knew we cared enough to tell them.

Then we sold our company and I got a job with a multinational, with the regional office based in Singapore and I got projects all over the Asia-Pacific. I still used the ICBE extensively, but to no effect. Nothing happened.

Finally one of my Singaporean colleagues told me that, no, he never read more than the first paragraph of my missives, because the language was “too flowery”.

I eventually figured out that the language in use across the company was not English at all, but a simplified, dumbed down version that I used to refer to as “Tradelish”. No nuance, no words of more than three syllables and no more than three paragraphs per message. And no system designs that made anyone happy. I think I lasted eighteen months and then went farming as a far more satisfactory way of losing money.

Whatever else you can say about madbastard’s comment on your prose, it’s actually a pretty good description of Tradelish.

So, now to the actual comment: One thing that’s fascinated me about your blog over the years is the deep involvement of Foreigners in the comments section. People who’s first language is not English and who you would not ordinarily expect to see the nuance contained in your prose, but who clearly are right in there “getting it”.

Well done, that man, as the Poms used to say.

Cheers,

Les

L said...

This post is an example of synchronicity for me. It was just this week that I decided, frustrated with my current jobhunting attempts, that I would return to my writing, a) because I've received good reception in the past and b) because if I manage to get paid for it then I'll have a far more enjoyable career than anything that needs me to work for someone else for 40+ hours a week.
The main thing I'm trying to write, though not the only thing, is a novel that I had the idea for several years ago. The last time I looked at it, it was during the height of my belief in Tumblr and the constant admonitions there for more diversity, and I got so bogged down in trying to include a diverse cast that I ended up barely writing anything for fear of portraying the minority characters I'd included incorrectly. This time, I've started afresh, and I'm just writing it, and I'll sort out the errors after I've finished- exactly the remedy you've suggested. If and when I eventually finish it, it'll be of the "hidden magical society in a modern day Earth setting" genre, though admittedly it is definitely fictional magic and not real magic. It's the best idea I've got at the moment for a longer piece, so hopefully this time I'll be able to finish it before I get bogged down with editing in some way.
The other thing I was considering writing was a Star Wars fanfic set post-RotJ that centred on Luke Skywalker and fit with Lucas' canon but not the EU or the new Disney films, but I think I've got myself some writer's block on that one right now...
I'd like to try finding opportunities to write shorter pieces that people might pay me for, too, but only if it won't take my ability to write eloquently in longer and more original prose from me.
Thank you for a very useful and timely post,
L.

streamfortyseven said...

Your writing is very clear and easy to read - of course, I read case law in the course of my work as an attorney, and my favorite authors are Mark Twain and William Faulkner. Your critic would choke, turn purple, and die if he were to read Faulkner's soliloquy in "The Sound And The Fury", I predict.

As for my own writing, I write everything in longhand, and get it all out before I edit it for grammar errors, spelling, and the like. Back in law school, for my research and writing project, I was assigned 50 pages on the meaning of the word "blight" by my Property professor. I let it hang fire for a couple of months, then took three hours to draft up an outline and then did a week's worth of research (and copying) in the law library. I took the whole mess home and then cranked out 250 pages on five legal pads in two weeks - at one fell swoop - after organizing the case law according to the outline. Luckily, a friend had a secretary who typed it up at no cost to me, and we went through a few cycles of corrections. The completed typescript ended up on the professor's desk - 150 pages long. I didn't redraft it, just handed him the first draft. He gave it a "pass" grade, and sent it to Prof. Dale Whitman, who wrote the standard hornbook in the field of Property Law, and who was editor of the ABA Journal on Real Property, Probate, and Trust. I was somewhat surprised when I got a call from Prof. Whitman asking to publish it - and after about a year or so, it appeared as an 89-page monograph on the subject in that journal. Two years later, SCOTUS handed down the Kelo decision, which totally changed the playing field, and made the monograph irrelevant. Sic transit gloria mundi.

And that's how I've written everything else I've ever published - all non-fiction, of course. Think about it for a while, maybe a long while, draft up a quick outline, do the research, organize the research, crank out a first draft, and submit it. I've thought of writing fiction and may well do so, I've got a lot of legal pads which could use some use other than collecting dust and serving as food for mice.

And I never got more than a "C" in high school English classes, or published any articles in any school papers, although I gave them first refusal for pieces which ended up in the underground press - "too controversial, couldn't possibly print that." And the cherry on top was the advice from the high school guidance counselor not to attempt college. After a PhD and JD, I beg to differ...

dltrammel said...

Speaking of trying to redo Tolkien, I wonder if you have ever read Pol Anderson's article "On Thud and Blunder", where he slides a big broad sword into the genre of fantasy and how so many writers don't get the history anywhere correct?

"On Thud and Blunder"

I read it back in the 80s and its as true today as then.

(sorry if this duplicate posts)

Twilight said...

The quality and style of your writing is what first attracted me to your work. It has allowed me to pass on articles containing what are, for them, fairly radical ideas to people who might otherwise have rejected them out of hand. Sometimes good prose is like proper attire, and without it you simply won't get through the door. The style of writing reflects the level of self discipline, clarity and mental organization of the author that clues me in to how seriously I should take a piece, and how well the author has thought through the ideas being presented.

Esn said...

@Toomas: (sorry for the long post everyone, but I'd like to reply at length)
I live near you, in North York, Ontario, Canada. My family immigrated here in the mid-1990s. The Iraq war (and the MSM drum-beat for conflict leading up to it) made me distrust American mainstream news and right-wing politicians. The Ukraine conflict of two years ago "finished the job", making me distrust the entire American and Canadian political spectrum (with the very tentative exception of the local Green Parties), as well as all Canadian mainstream news for any non-local issues. I have a friend who came from Odessa, who kept in touch with family back home as this was all going on, and I had access to Russian-language news channels which broadcast terrible footage from the cities being bombarded with air strikes and artillery, of elderly women crying as they lost their homes and children, while the CBC talking heads serenely debated on the best way to punish Putin for his aggression, instead of talking about how to bring peace. To say that it left a bad taste is an understatement; it became absolutely clear that the country I live and grew up in will forever oppose the country I was born in, and that this never had anything to do with human rights or with the ideological battle against communism.

But none of us are going to publicly protest because it has been made quite clear in Canada that it is a taboo subject. If not even Elizabeth May will speak about it, if the local Toronto Russian-language news show carefully avoids showing any footage from Ukraine at all for months and months, while the Ukrainian-language one reports the war from an entirely pro-Maidan viewpoint... it is a taboo subject. With that said, I have been grateful to discover that not all of the locals here buy the official narrative with regard to how evil Russians are. (although there are the others - like the guy who was gleeful when the price of oil collapsed because "that'll show those Russians!", even though it also meant that Canada's economy would collapse as well)

(continued...)

Esn said...

(part two)

I speak only for myself, of course, but my personal feeling is that both the "Russian troll farms" narrative and the "fake news"/"propornot" narratives are meant specifically to discredit all those who don't agree with NATO's current policy with regards to Russia. In your blog, you mentioned some Wikipedia articles; I helped write some of those. I have no doubt that the Russian state indeed pays people to influence social media. The key, though, is that everyone else does this as well. Companies. Toronto mayoral campaigns. Federal parties. Other countries (I'm sure more exist that were better-hidden): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State-sponsored_Internet_propaganda You never know on the internet whether you're dealing with someone genuine. I think the paid trolls are probably more likely to be boring and cookie-cutter (since they're not paid to write well or soulfully), and I see THOSE types on all sides on any given political issue. Pay attention to the newspaper comment sections around election time.

Some of the paid opinion-pushers are veteran Wikipedia editors whose job is to keep Wikipedia pro-NATO. (I suspect)

Alternative voices (and, for that matter, mainstream Russian voices) very rarely get invited to mainstream news channels here. The MSM need to justify that. One idea seems to be that even talking to or debating with "those people" risks "legitimizing" them, and we can't have that. But it's even better to label them Russian agents. Almost the only Russians that I've ever seen get invited to CBC (or TVO) are dissidents who have minimal support in Russia itself. Other times, the talking heads interpret "what Putin must be thinking".

By contrast, Russian state television every night hosts raucous debate shows in which Russian mainstream and slightly-less-mainstream politicians and pundits debate pro-Maidan Ukrainian, American and EU pundits. The Russians aren't afraid to give them air, because they routinely demolish their arguments. Here's a pretty accurate write-up:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gilbert-doctorow/press-freedom-in-russia-t_b_10103054.html
I think the reason for the comparative lack of fair debate in Canada is that the local MSM is afraid that they would too often lose. I see the same rationale in the Washington Post's (PropOrNot's) attempt to label a whole swathe of alternative media (some of which, like antiwar.com, have been around since 1995) as "Russian agents": it is a way to avoid debating them.

We already know according to a bestselling book by former mainstream German journalist Udo Ulfkotte that the CIA heavily influences the MSM there: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-03-28/top-german-journalist-admits-mainstream-media-completely-fake-we-all-lie-cia
As you dig for evidence of Russian influence, don't forget that the Russians are not the only ones trying to put ideas into your head, and that perhaps not all of those ideas are bad ones. I think some in the alternative media (including JMG) have recognized that. Russians are people too, and Russia unlike the US has a no-first-strike nuclear policy.

daelach said...

Dear JMG,

from my point of view as non-native speaker, it is correct that your style of writing isn't that fast to read. It makes me slow down a bit, taking my time to understand your points. I'm reading a lot in English; your articles are about the only place where I regularly encounter words I have to look up. So it's not only the interesting ideas I get, but my vocabulary keeps improving, too.

In fact, I appreciate that you don't treat your readers as half-imbecile ADHD kids, and that you hand out the equivalent of a tasteful menu instead of some crappy McBlog burger. Of course that isn't zeitgeisty, but this whole blog is largely about what's wrong with the zeitgeist anyway.

As for past and present - I guess the conventional wisdom is that the past formed the present in terms of more or less linear causality. But actually, the present also forms the past by attaching meaning and interpretation to what happened, and of course by selection bias. History is constantly being rewritten to accomodate the present perspective. Seen this way, the past itself may be constant, but our perception of it isn't, and it isn't things we act upon, but our perception of things - Plato's cave allegory.

Oceania was at war with Eurasia, and therefore, they had always been at war. Even though they had been allied just four years ago, but that was wiped out. The enemy of the moment always represented abolute evil. Sounds quite familiar, doesn't it?

all the best for the new year, Daelach

Kevin Warner said...

When I first saw madmagic's advice I immediately thought "troll alert!". After reading it again I was, for some reason, reminded of the story of the golfer who was being beaten regularly by a good friend. The first golfer fixed this situation by buying his friend a book on golfing techniques after which his friend's performance quickly dropped right off to a lower level.
Obviously a well established author will have developed a style of writing that pleases some people but not others. Some works you like in short summaries that you can read on the go while with JMG's posts, you make yourself a cuppa coffee before sitting down to concentrate on his latest post. There is no want or need for homogenization of how works appear on the net. In any case language is always evolving as demonstrated by the fact that when Dr. Watson ejaculates in a Sherlock Holmes story, it is not what you think.
Once I was at a table with an American, a Canadian, a New Zealander, a South African, an Englishman, a Welshman, a Rhodesian, an Irishman, a Scotsman and myself as an Aussie. We were all of course speaking English in our own accents but I cannot recall anybody demanding that we all speak in a standardized way of speaking. Why should there be a standard way of writing on the net which did not even exist not that long ago is just plain weird. It is a Darwinian jungle on the net and the fact that this site is still going strong after a decade shows that JMG was able to develop his own popular style in spite of a modern education.

Brian said...

"brilliance or bathos", "bullied, beaten, or bewildered", "electronic Elysium e-books enter", followed by "Learn to notice the really well-turned phrases... the moments of humor...", ...the alliteration ;)

Also, didn't Strunk & White say something about lists of three? Seems very apropos to your message about finding the third way out of binary thinking. Did the gentlemen write any other (perhaps esoteric) texts that have influenced our favorite Archdruid?

Izzy said...

@JMG: Ha! I was just thinking today that taking dull classes--or having a job with a lot of meetings--is a valuable tool for a starting author. (Or a GM. At my last job, a new boss announced the advent of weekly in-person meetings; I returned to my desk and emailed my friends to see who wanted to play some D&D, because I was clearly going to be writing up some adventures.)

Izzy said...

Two further notes:

1) My Chinese teacher, in high school, used to tell us that our essays should be "like a girl's skirt: long enough to cover everything, but short enough to be interesting." I think the specific applications of this advice vary a great deal by subject and author, but I've always liked it as a phrase. (Living in New England in January, most of my skirts right now are ankle-length, but hey.)

2) I got interested in your writing style as a result of reading the Encyclopedia of the Occult (while on vacation in a rural PA library, a pleasant surprise) and continue to find it very impressive, in published books as well as this blog. Immensely enjoyed Weird of Hali: Insmouth*, and intend to buy Arkham as soon as I can be sure I don't have to pay more taxes than I think.

* My one thought was that the romance moved awfully quickly, but I feel that way about most fictional romance: I'm the product of a time and place where you go to bed with someone a couple times before you even think about bringing up emotions, and also a commitment-phobic WASP.

Brian said...

@RobM, you're going to want to pick up some silver sulfadiazine for that sick burn.

@Cassiodorus, hey! I live in Pittsburgh. I had no idea there was a local Green Wizards crew. I kept up with the comments until about a year ago, but this group has a lot to say and I don't have the time to read all of it, haha. I'll check out the Green Wizards forum and see about joining in the fun!

@JMG, my genre is technical literature for water treatment equipment. Maybe I should start making "Top 10 Ways to Make Sure Your ZLD Process is Producing An Acceptable Sludge Cake", or "Check Out This One Weird Way This Mom Found to Calibrate pH/ORP Sensors (Service Engineers Hate Her)"!

Lucretia Heart said...

I usually read the first couple of days worth of commentary after each Archdruid post, and I saw the critique you're referencing. My response was a dropped jaw followed by a round of hearty laughter!

The seemingly sincere guidance by a self-approved 'expert,' had you followed it, would have utterly annihilated everything worthy about your entire blog, and obviously! The strangely self-satisfied advice to you was remarkable, as was the confident assumption that their wisdom was self-evident!

As a writer of a couple of blogs myself, and having fielded my own share of unsolicited advice, I well understand your pique.

Lizzy said...

Dear Mr Greer,

Thanks for your reports -- a highlight of my day, every Thursday. You mention in a reply to a correspondent that you will be covering the idea of immigration in an up-coming report. Can I just ask about one thing that it seems to me never gets mentioned?
I am a pale-skinned person. Pinky-white and prone to sunburn. I live in England where the days are very short in winter and the sunlight feeble. There are many, many people my colour or paler. If I travel to sunny countries I have to hide in the shade or I get burnt. I know many people who have had lots of cancerous moles and freckles cut out of their previously burned skin. People die.
The immigrants arriving here are either brown or black. I've learned that vitamin D does not get absorbed so easily by darker skin. If you look at a map of the world you can match sunlight to skin darkness of the indigenous population. The human race adapted or died -- either be getting scurvy or by getting cancer. I've read too that this happened pretty quickly -- 20K years or so from black African to lily-white Brit.
Another thing I've read is that lack of Vitamin D has been linked to psychosis. Again, this is simply not mentioned.
It seems that people think skin colour is simply not a health issue. But it is, don't you think?
best wishes,
Lizzie

Ryan Johnson said...

As always, thank you for the thoughtful post.

I found your comment regarding how to treat advice particularly resonant, although your words were quickly translated in my brain to "Accepting other people’s advice...is a risky business." I spent an embarrassing amount of my own adulthood to this point seeking advice on how to tackle whatever endeavor I was tackling. Not that seeking advice is a bad habit on its own. It certainly beats stumbling blindly through a dark room without the thought to look for a light switch. But as you have noted, the opposite of a bad thing is often another bad thing. And letting others frame the way in which I attempt something new has been the opposite bad thing I have repeatedly fallen victim to.

It seems painfully obvious when one thinks about it that no one can give foolproof advice in a world awash with variables. And yet, when I trust a person on a given subject, I have the tendency to use their advice as the solution, without bothering to critically analyze their assumptions and experiences, reworking as necessary to suit my own conditions. I wonder if this isn't a significant part of the reason lots of folks struggle to see how to collapse in place. When we imagine what actions can be taken, we draw from what we have seen others do/say, and often try to replicate them. With practice (read: failure), I have embraced the "ex-ducere" approach to expert advice, but it is an endless and uncertificated training, to be sure.

Adrian Skilling said...

I remember being wholly turned off by English at about age 12. I put lots of effect into writing what I thought was an imaginative story, about someone from the past being transported to present who was both horrified, scared and confused by the metal monsters we zoom around the planet in today. It got slated by a teacher who seemed to have it in for me. It may have been rubbish but I remember getting no constructive criticism, I felt written off, and never enjoyed the subject ever since.

MindfulEcologist said...

My work focuses on the psychological impact of our ecological crisis. This gives me an opportunity to explore a number of what I consider to be important tangents. One came up in Parents I thought you and your readers might find amusing in light of your comments this week about the difference between the editing and the writing process. I liken it to an interplay of my internalized mother image (Wow! go for it, it's all great!) and my internalized father image (That's not very clear, why is that sentence there at all?).

There is a reason our public schools are designed to turn out folks who are terrified to write and speak in the public square. Propping up the rickety business-as-usual dumb-downed pabulum is so much easier without the gadflies asking if the emperor is actually wearing any clothes.

And with that bit of fun writing I bid you, from the bottom of my heart, a warm thank you for your example all these years. Cheers.

O. Hinds said...

Not on topic for the week's post (which I enjoyed, unsurprisingly), but I've come across some more news of the good old Lardbucket:
http://www.businessinsider.com/expensive-f35-snag-years-to-fix-2017-1

beneaththesurface said...

This week's post resonated so much with my own experiences writing and reading, in-school vs. out-of-school. I loved to read and write as a child, but most of the experience that has helped me become a better reader and writer occurred outside of school, with a few exceptions. I find it ironic that in high school, despite being a book-lover and aspiring writer, English was my hardest class. I sometimes would get C's as my semester grades. I had little intrinsic motivation to write those 5-paragraph essays with a thesis more or less decided by the teacher. This resulted in a great deal of stress and lowered my self-image at the time. Yet during those years, I spent significant amounts of free time writing in personal journals, also poetry and fiction and long letters. Reading some of my early writing now, I'm embarrassed by the quality, but unlike a well-written 5-paragraph essay by a teacher's standard, this personal writing did at least have my voice in it....so it was my own... and I was discovering what was on my mind, what I wanted to say, what was meaningful and interesting to me, which I rarely could do in school.

I also tended to do poorly on reading comprehension multiple choice tests. Even though I had read the assigned novel, I often couldn't remember extraneous details asked -- What meal did such-and-such character eat at a certain time? etc. I found that the way I read in my non-school life was very different than the way I had to read for English class to be tested on my comprehension. When I read out of my own intrinsic motivation, I read for meaning, to reflect on the material and how it resonates (or not) with my own life and worldview, etc. When I had to read for a multiple choice reading comprehension test, I was trying to remember all the details in the story, at the expense of more deeply exploring the story and reflecting on it.

The best thing I've done as an adult to help revive my love of reading and writing, is to stay out of school since I graduated from college in 2001. Since I actually have time (instead of a weight of assignments I don't want to do), I have read far more books than I was able to when was in school, books that I get to choose, and I can read and reflect on them the way I want. Still, there are moments when I feel I haven't fully recovered from my school experience. I have to thank you, JMG, for the gift of your high-quality writing (both you books and your weekly essays) and also for encouraging my own writing (via the anthologies and in more broader realms).

Clay Dennis said...

This comment is slightly off-topic but refers directly to your peak oil essay from a few weeks ago. I couldn't help but think of peak oil with this weeks news of riots amid the gasoline price increases in Mexico. 2017 is the year that many in the oil forcasting community predicted that Mexicos aging Cantarell oil field would be so depleted that Mexico would cease to be a significant Oil Exporter. It appears that this is happening and forcing the government to abandon the subsidization of fuel in the country. This is causing riots and unrest. The mainstream media misses the point that this is what happens when the oil and the revenues from it stop flowing. I am afraid that Mexico will now be on a rapid slide to the same condition as other countries who's oil production peaked and skidded downhill such as Egypt or Syria. Que the warbands.

Nastarana said...

Dear Mr. Greer, while you might not have made the Washington Post's A list, the language policing post from whatever the poster chooses to call itself does show, IMO that Trollhaven is paying a bit more attention to druids that it used to do.

It is not for me to tell others how to conduct their own affairs, but I have to say I find myself rather in awe of your measured and courteous response to a piece of bare-faced effrontery which, from where I stand, merits little more than a brief " You don't say" or "I'm sorry, I can't help you with that".

Not to mention that if a person is going to demand respectful attention on the basis of alleged credentials, they had better be able and prepared to present said credentials.

Tim said...

"Now you know how to do it when the internet finally dries up and blows away. (You’re welcome.)"

This made me laugh out loud, literally! This is a timely post for me as I'm writing a series of blog posts for my blacksmithing website. Some fresh ideas may help me.

Thank you, JMG!

Dammerung said...

Pretty amusing coincidence - the last thing I was reading before I trotted over was a post on /pol/ about our collective writing style. Since there's very little moderation and active subversion committed against us by state-level actors, the way we write on /pol/ is of the utmost importance, in a way that might exceed any other platform. So we enforce our own peculiar style vigorously, some might even say sadistically. We also occasionally get people stopping by trying to change our writing style by fiat. Operational Google is a good example of that. They invariably get told, rather less politely than you have here, to stuff it.

Alice Y. said...

Your comments this week about writing style coincide with my rediscovery of the Arthur Ransome novels, 'Swallows and Amazons' and so on. I have a need to search out anything an enquiring eight year old daughter might enjoy and benefit from reading. Ransome was born in 1887, and these novels as well as being fun to read are full of details which I think might be interesting to many students of de-industrial living conditions: children routinely eat offal (such as tongue sandwiches); milk needs to be collected fresh daily from small family farms; family catering with no fridges; professional pre-industrial eel trapping and charcoal production; clothes must be mended when torn; and technical details of sailing boats and their construction as well as traces of the then-passing sail-based international trade economy.

I have only realized since re-reading that Ransome studied and wrote about story-telling for years before he started on these novels. To my taste they are beautifully written and full of a quiet stoic wisdom as well as appropriate peril, and interesting details of daily life in England in the early part of the last century (and hundreds of sailing terms I'd not come across elsewhere). I am sure they are not to everyone's taste, but I see them as classic children's novels. I am beginning to study the prose in just the way you recommend, working out why I like them so much, and looking forward to the conversations with daughter about what she does and doesn't like about the writing if she get stuck into them.

Dudley Dawson said...

At the risk of getting too fanboyish...

Whenever I get the opportunity to talk to a writer I admire, I've got to ask -- do you prefer doing a lot of prep-work before writing, or flying by the seat of your pants?

Or, put another way, are you a plotter or a pantser?

Inquiring minds (at least one) want to know.

Dammerung said...

I can't resist an addendum I just thought of.

Good political satire hurts people's feelings.
Great political satire gets people killed.

Friction Shift said...

I missed the dust-up in the comments section last week, but after returning to that post and reading the comment that provoked this week's essay, I can understand your irritation.

Wait, was that a run-on sentence?

I can match last week's poster's CV. I worked for 25 years in public broadcasting, published hundreds of music reviews in major magazines, authored and edited books, and studied creative writing from a Pen Faulkner prize winning novelist. Etcetera, etcetera, blah, blah, blah.

I now toil in the world of internet commerce, and much of the advice you received about writing for the internet would have more accurately been labeled as writing for search engines. Yes, friends, Google now determines the quality of much of what we read online. The idea, of course, is that by “optimizing” your “content” (we used to call that “writing”) the search engines will rank it higher on relevant keyword searches. This brings you more eyeballs and, theoretically, higher profits. The brilliance of your prose is irrelevant.

The software that we use to optimize our content relies on an insidious scheme called the Flesch Reading Ease Readability Formula, which is widely used to assign grade levels to someone's prose. This employs a mathematical formula that multiplies the average number of words in each sentence by a factor of .39, the average number of syllables per word by 11.8, then adds the two results together and subtracts 15.59 to give you the magic answer. If the formula spits out 5, the writing is at a fifth grade level. My training says that 5 is a pretty good number when you are writing for an e-commerce web site.

I've been told that the Flesch formula is embedded in Microsoft Word, but that Word will not give a score higher than 12. Given that 12th grade is the new 8th grade, you can see where we're headed.

Proust and Thomas Mann would get pretty dismal Flesch scores. I am sure the Archdruid Report wouldn't fare much better.

I have to take issue with your condemnation of the Mrs. McNitpicks out there, however. I have found that the level of writing skill among American high school students is so low that, in my opinion, we need more Mrs. McNitpicks, not fewer. I was fortunate enough to attend public high school in the era before anyone gave a damn about self esteem, and my academic path led through the classroom of a woman who would be anyone's Hollywood central casting example of a Mrs. McNitpick – thin, wan, brutally honest, serious to a fault. She struck fear in every student, and I struggled to earn a B from her. She also turned out thousands of students who could write solid, serviceable American English prose. Strunk & White was our textbook.

You also mention speaking in your essay, which is also something rarely taught anymore in American schools. The idea that someone should learn to express themselves verbally in a clear, pleasant, well-modulated voice is a thing of the past (check your local TV newscast, or pick any YouTube video at random if you need proof). I am sure telling a young person that they need to work on their diction would crush their self esteem.

I don't mean to sound like an old fart yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. But I adhere to the notion that people need to learn the rules before creatively smashing and rearranging them. Unless the Flesch formula is involved!

Sister Crow said...

Add my voice to the chorus that appreciates your style of writing as much as the content. In fact, the style your erstwhile critic was advocating would do your subjects great disservice; you take on complex issues with long histories behind them, and such issues cannot even begin to be unraveled in a half-dozen bullet points. Each week I am impressed by the care with which you construct your arguments and by the breadth of your knowledge. I was expecting Madmagic to finish by posting a link to his “How to Write for the Internet and Earn $$$” subscription website; it certainly smelled like that kind of phishing come-on to me.

As for your writing advice, many times YES. I got my BA in Creative Writing in the 1990s (I also have half an MFA, obtained before I came to my senses). We were taught to free-write first and edit afterwards, and my professor heavily emphasized the importance of learning the rules/forms, then breaking them as necessary to serve the work. Everything I’ve learned about writing then or since has been about what does or does not serve the work. Oh, and the bit about editing before you’ve finished? From experience I can tell you all, it’s death. Reminds me, I should dig out that story again, if I can reconstruct my original plan…

I think the most important point is the one on reading broadly. It’s depressingly easy to spot the writers who only read what’s been published within their subgenre in the last decade. It’s just as easy to spot the LitFic writers who have only read the handful of critically-approved genre authors but figure it’s an easy way to make a few bucks while showing the ghetto-dwellers what good writing is (“Tropes? They have tropes? Eh, it's not like they'll notice.”). Neither approach produces interesting ideas, absorbing plots, and memorable characters all at once, which of course is the minimum I require of a story.

Oh, and as for those 13-year-olds you mentioned in your reply to Jason, yeah, I’ve probably already read some of their slash fanfics...

Myriad said...

The first time I read some ADR posts, the very first thing that struck me was that your writing style reminded me of my own. I'm not saying it's actually similar (which would be, I suspect, impossible for me to judge objectively), but that something about it made it seem that way to me. Which made me very appreciative of your and other commenters' responses to the suggestion that such a style is unsuitable for, or obsolete in, the world of Internet discourse.

Part of my writing process is that only about a third of what I write, including "simple" things like blog comments and forum posts, ever gets posted (or otherwise distributed). The rest is not so much scrapped as put on a permanent (and necessarily large) back burner, whence it often re-emerges in an evolved form. That is to say, I don't set out to re-write it, but it will likely influence something I write later that's much closer to what I subsequently figured out was what I wanted to say in the first place. In summary, how I write is hardly distinguishable from how I think.

One drawback is that it can be (though it isn't always) a slow process. For instance, last week's trivial comment about a Bored of the Rings reference was all that made the cut, of several paragraphs about my predictions for the new year. Since then I've worked out what I actually wanted to say about such predictions, but a week late to be timely or on topic.

RPC said...

Sturgeon's Law! I had heard the quote, but I had no idea it had achieved the status of a Law. (In the quote as I originally heard it the number was 90%, but no matter.) If any readers here have not read his novella "Slow Sculpture" go find it - one of the most affecting pieces of prose I've experienced.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

For the benefit of new readers, and for avoidance of any doubt... Being as these are JMG's classic opening lines, 'to boldly go' straight to the final paragraph would be so very unfortunate.

"The orbiters are silent now, waiting for the last awkward journey that will take them to the museums that will warehouse the grandest of our civilization’s failed dreams. There will be no countdown, no pillar of flame to punch them through the atmosphere and send them whipping around the planet at orbital speeds. All of that is over.

In Houston, the same silence creeps through rooms where technicians once huddled over computer screens as voices from space crackled over loudspeakers. The screens are black now, the mission control rooms empty, and most of the staff have already gotten their pink slips. On the Florida coast, where rusting gantries creak in the wind and bats flutter in cavernous buildings raised for the sake of a very different kind of flight, another set of launch pads sinks slowly into their new career as postindustrial ruins."

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/elegy-for-age-of-space.html

LewisLucanBooks said...

Dear Mr. Greer, et all - That was really an interesting bit on writer's block. Hadn't run across that take on it, before. Some one mentioned Stephen King's "On Writing". I reread it, every couple of years. A couple of things that King does, that has been mentioned here is, he usually does a first draft and then throws it in a drawer for six months. The goes back to it. He also recommends hacking out at least 30% of whatever is initially written.

A writer finding their voice was also mentioned. It's funny. I wrote a series of book reviews for a local newspaper. About 50 in a year. I reread some of them now and ask, "Did I write that?" Thinking back on the act of writing, even my posture and attitude changed when I was working on a piece. I'd sit of straighter, the eyebrow would go up and I had this feeling of ... taking an overview? It was a very odd feeling. Like I had plugged into "something" else.

The topic of genre was touched on. If you look at a library record, way down at the bottom there's usually a list of what subject or genre the book was classified under. Click it, and it will list all the other books in the system that relate. Trying this with our local system, I discovered that a certain author wrote something called "Long Descent." :-). That's subject was "Regression (Civilization). "Dystopian Fiction" in my system yields 235 entries. Doesn't seem to be much happening in "Dystopian Nonfiction." :-). Cataloging, in general, is pretty much of a mess, right now.

It used to be if you went into a library, and said something like "I read a book and liked it and would like to read similar books" you could usually expect the librarian to come up with some suggestions. There were also reference books to consult. There may be a few old copies kicking around your library. Most of the youngsters rely on online sources, these days. If you search "Genreflecting" or "Book Recommendation Services" things pop up. Your mileage may vary.

Amazon, for all it's many faults can be useful in hunting up "like" books. Their people who bought this, also bought that ... and the "you may be interested in..." are occasionally useful.

About a year ago, I seem to remember we had a bit of a conversation, here, about a newish subject area or genre. Climate change / ecological fiction? There was even a web site, as I remember. Lew

Bill Pulliam said...

I find that I have two different processes depending on what I am writing. For a non fiction piece like my monthly column about birds published in a local paper (a PAYING GIG!!!! woo hoo!) I select a topic and mull over it in my head a bit. Then I sit outside or in some other comfortable place with a pencil and a piece of paper, and scrawl out an outline consisting of sentence fragments. I let that rest, then a day or so later I sit at the computer and flesh the fragments out. At that point I check the length, and make several more passes through making sure it flows, the vocabulary is right for the target audience, and general readability. Then I sleep on it, make a final pass through, and send it off.

For more storytelling prose, I sit at the computer and tell it the story. Right through from beginning to end. Then I save,close, and do something else. I then revisit it many times, but whenever I find myself getting in storytelling mode for another section, an expansion, an alternative version, I just let the flow go til it runs out, save, and close again.

BFM said...

In my opinion, anyone criticizing you for your writing style is revealing that they have neither the attention span nor the aptitude to confront serious commentary.

whomever said...

Can I just point out there's a counterpoint to this, "How To Read Something Written Like An Archdruid". Which involves reading slowly, thoughtfully, carefully. In my case every Wednesday I carefully pour myself a glass of Bourbon and block out a bunch of time. I've found that I'm doing too much rushed reading of too much stuff, so I force myself to do it carefully. I should do that with more books; I used to, I just fell out of the habit. But it needs readable stuff, not sort of academic writing that seems more about over complicated sentences, excess vocabulary, enormous run-on sentences and everything else that plagues Academic writing. I can't have been the only one to have noticed that any history book that is actually readable gets immediately denounced as "pop history" by Academics these days.

avalterra said...

You've hit a sore point with me - education. Specifically, teaching students to write. When my son was young, and learning to write, his teachers told us that their philosophy was to "let the students be as creative as possible" and to "ignore grammar, spelling and punctuation." These things impeded creativity. I asked, "okay, but how does he learn those rules?" "Oh, that comes later," replied his teachers. Only, "later" never came. And now he is 17 and cannot spell, punctuate, or use proper grammar.

I think it is easy to teach "creativity". It can be whatever the person does. Spill paint on your head? That's creative! But learning the traditional rules? That's hard. There is only one right answer and you have to teach someone how to get to it. In my opinion, our current educational system is long on creativity and short on rules.

AV

Joel said...

This topic of rules, and the inevitability of exceptions to any set of rules, makes me wonder if Agamben's State of Exception might come up next week when the topic of government is raised.

Have you read it? It seems especially relevant now, with people as frightened as they are of the recently-elected norm-flouter in chief.

Mrbluesky said...

There are two huge reasons why I read your blog every week (and for the last four years or so) - first, the quality of your writing, with its long sentences, complex ideas and cogent analyses of our predicament, and secondly, the quality of your curation of the comments - I don't know of any other blogger who manages to be so good at writing and curation; just don't change a thing, please.

PS If I were to be given a choice, I would like to see you post something more on systems thinking - I'm very interested in the matter, and you seem to have a grasp on it and be able to express yourself clearly on the subject, unlike others.

PPS Sorry for duplicate comment earlier - internet gremlins, I'd warrant.

Cheers,
John

Ed-M said...

Hi JMG!

Well to give RobM some credit, your posts do tend to be a long-winded and rambly, and take more words than necessary to make your point. Otherwise you posts are very, very good.

This one, however, indicates that the troll who suggested that you write in stilted, dumbed-down, quasi-journalistic newspeak has turned out to be a broken clock that kept military time to be correct once a day... and this post was that time! Had you followed his advice, this post itself would have been ironic in hat you were using his style to criticise his style. But you would not be writing like an archdruid, either! ;^)

Jess sayin'

Brian Kaller said...

JMG,

Thanks. As a journalist, I can vouch that no one should aspire to a single ideal template of writing – nor have I ever heard a professional recommend doing so. When you start writing for a newspaper you learn the inverted pyramid style; it gets all the vital information in the first sentence or two and spends the lower paragraphs on quotes and details, so you can trim from the bottom up. No journalist, though, would use that style on a feature article, designed to have a satisfying flow. Nor would anyone use it on a long non-fiction short story like “Myths Over Miami,” which you cited here some months ago, with its twist near the end.

Few rules about writing are absolute. Good writing tends to follow certain guidelines – active voice, action verbs, punchy sentences – and I’d like to see more people learn them. Thing is, we all break them as well, and we should - you no more often than any good writer. And even when a hundred writers follow them closely, they can each discover their own style and voice.

Sometimes you ignore them wholesale; William Golding, in his novel The Inheritors, uses many stative verbs and passive voices to create an alien yet haunting narrative voice. Eventually I realised he was writing from the perspective of Neanderthals; later, the point-of-view shifts to Cro-Magnons, and I felt a sudden shock at the shift in style.

onething said...

"one of the things I've found most interesting is that I've built a career and an audience by systematically breaking every rule that you're supposed to follow to market yourself on the internet. I don't post daily; I don't write short snappy posts;"

I'm afraid you've spoiled me then. I find lots of good stuff by following links that other posters give, but a couple of times recently I've gone to what looks like a great blog with titles of interest, and I read, and it lasts maybe a half page and its done. I'm looking for a "read more" button but there isn't one. I feel puzzled like I've just read the abstract but where's the article. No meat.

Marian Camden said...

I actually looked you up on line today after reading your essay in Jesus Through Pagan Eyes specifically because I was impressed with your writing style. So there!

Tomuru said...

Oh my god, I actually did get a proper education. Elements of Style was the book way back in 1973 when I managed to escape English writing class. Only it was taught as the rules of style. Enjoyed the book for what it was. Passed the course so I could continue with my study of the the sciences and basically have never looked back until today. Now that I have the urge to write again I will have to get a reference copy.

I was never able to get through Tolkin. I have started multiple times. It just doesnt work for me. My friends loved him but he was way too flowery or something for my tastes. He was to fantasy what Melville was for whaling tales. I did manage to get through Moby Dick. Now I had no problem reading all of George R.R. Martins voluminous texts. I have read each with joy multiple times. The same is true for Frank Herberts Dune series. I will have to go back and reread them again with your suggestions for observing the turn of the phrase. Thanks for the info as always.

Chris Balow said...

Hi JMG,

The theory here on the source of Writer's Block is something I'd never considered before, but it makes a great deal of sense. From personal experience, I can say that it's darn difficult not to edit while writing. For me, the temptation comes because I will write something with a fair amount of ease and fluidity but then, returning to it weeks or months later, find that I hate every bit of it. This leads me to toss the whole thing and, upon reflection, feel that--if I'd been more critical and deliberate during composition--I'd have crafted something worth keeping. But, as you've pointed out, attempting to do that leads to blockage.

And I, for one, enjoy your writing style very much, even if you overuse the phrase "source of wry amusement" a tad :)

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...

Toomas, I looked at your article at http://toomaskarmo.blogspot.com/. I must disagree with your generous self-grading however. How about 0/5? Here is the problem: the whole article is based on the idea that “something” has been disclosed: “… list … discloses Kremlin efforts”. But propornot doesn’t disclose anything at all. It provides no evidence about any of the sites. None at all. It even admits that it has no evidence of any actual connections to Russia. They actually TELL YOU THIS, although the original Washington Post article was designed to make it seem there was some evidence of something, by relying on an anonymous sources who provided zero evidence.

This is what propornot ACTUALLY TELLS YOU:

“We are happy to remove any outlet whose operators understand how Putin's Russia is a brutal authoritarian kleptocracy that uses "fake news" as online propaganda, and resolves to help do something about it. For example, any outlet that has used a lot of Russia Today and Sputnik News content, but resolves to stop doing so, is going to be removed from this list. “

For example, they listed CounterPunch as a Kremlin stooge. Did they have any actual basis for this? Well, no, because when CounterPunch spoke to them:

“CounterPunch’s Joshua Frank spotlighted the amateurish, bush-league nature of PropOrNot, after pointing out to the group’s representative CounterPunch’s history of criticizing Russia, upon which it was promptly removed from PropOrNot’s list of propaganda pushers. Revealingly, PropOrNot indicated to Frank that they would also consider removing other progressive media sources from the list if representatives of those outlets contacted them to complain.  It’s nice to know PropOrNot has such impeccable investigative standards for identifying propaganda.”

http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/12/06/post-fact-politics-reviewing-the-history-of-fake-news-and-propaganda/

So, to be clear, their list is based on no actual evidence, merely whether they like you or not or, failing that, whether you agree to stop citing RT. Notice that they don’t care whether any particular RT article is true, which is irrelevant for them. The reason truth is irrelevant for them is simple: to answer their own question, “is it propaganda or not”, well, yes, propornot.com is pure propaganda.

They even give you a hint for where their motives might lie: the FAQ mentions they include Ukrainian-Americans and propornot were tweeting Ukrainian fascist slogans shortly before they were catapulted into the spotlight by the WashPost:

https://twitter.com/propornot/status/799314450893438976

See discussion here by a US journalist Mark Ames who was booted out of Russian by Putin:

"“One PropOrNot tweet, dated November 17, invokes a 1940s Ukrainian fascist salute “Heroism Slava!”

http://www.alternet.org/media/anonymous-blacklist-promoted-washington-post-has-shocking-roots-ukrainian-fascism-eugenics-and

sgage said...

Lots of useful thoughts and advice on writing here...

I will make one small contribution, one that I've given to my students over the years whenever I assigned a paper. If you are uncertain of a passage in your writing, or if it's a relatively short piece, read it aloud. No audience necessary. Just read it aloud, and certain classes of grammatical, stylistic, and structural errors will become screamingly apparent. It's almost magical!

Many of us will know that there comes a time in editing that you are so close to your work that you simply can't see even relatively simple screw-ups. Reading aloud takes care of that, and many other miscues.

While I'm here, JMG, let me add my voice to the chorus of those who really, really appreciate your writing style. I mean, the subjects you write about are often things I am thinking about anyway, so I'm already hooked. And it is greatly rewarding to agree and disagree and engage with your writing. I always have to think (hey, it hardly hurts at all!) and learn. But I have to say, the way that you write makes getting there half the fun! And so, many many thanks! I would ask you to please not change your writing style, except I'm not at all worried that you might ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Eagle Eye, planned obsolescence gets noticed in the media every couple of decades, and then forgotten again as soon as the advertisers get grumpy. On the other hand, the accelerating crapification of consumer products is reaching the point at which people are starting to really notice it, so maybe this time around the awareness will stick.

Jessi, I'm glad the visual arts remember that. There have been times -- the heyday of academic art in the 19th century was one of them -- when art was just as rigidly confined by rules as writing is today, just as there have been times when writing teachers grasped the need for flexibility.

Cherokee, arrogance is underrated!

Jason, trust me. She's already giggled at it and gone on to something more interesting.

Tony, thank you! I appreciate the more flowing and leisurely prose style of the nineteenth century a great deal, as you noted. Delighted to hear about the book -- the sort of thing it discusses will be at least as useful in Taiwan as on this side of the Big Pond.

MawKernewek, oh my. That's every bit as embarrassing as the contemporary US visions of 2010 or so, which were just as far off. Any of my readers who want to insist that present fantasies of the technofuture will inevitably come true should take a good hard look at this sort of thing...

Esn, in fact you're following my advice the other way around -- editing first, and then writing. If it works for you, by all means!

Les, that's a great story. I'm sorry to say that you could send your ICBE to most people in America and it would soundly ignored. I've noticed, though, that you're quite correct in your comment -- I have a lot of readers whose native language isn't English, but who have a much better ear for English than I have for French and Latin (my two "second languages"). It's humbling, to be frank.

L, go ye forth and write that thing! One trick that I find helpful is to remember that a novel doesn't have to be written in the same order it's going to be read. If you get stuck in one scene, jump to another and write that; usually by the time you're done, you'll be able to figure out what needs fixing in the earlier scene. I'm just under 50,000 words into the current novel (book 5 of The Weird of Hali), and the chapters and chunks of chapters that are finished are scattered nearly at random through the entire length of the novel. It really does make things easier.

Streamfortyseven, that's a great story. I predict that your first fiction bestseller will be titled Blight. (It really is a good title!) If longhand on legal pads is your preferred method of drafting, by all means -- finding out what habits facilitate writing and what habits hinder it is an important step on the road to a writing career.

Caryn said...

JMG: Just to pipe up with my 2-cents-worth on the issue:

I personally don't find your essays long or rambling at all. I, like many other commenters here, do very much appreciate your writing style. I find it long enough to flesh out a thought coherently, very easy-going to follow, and you have a warm, pleasant authorial 'voice' or tone. I like the humour and colloquialisms. Although, I have not adopted it, I also like the word "tolerably". It is a word that evokes a measurement in keeping with your tone.

I would not pile on to Madmagic or RobM though - It is hard to get one's tone across as intended, and this is one of the drawbacks of writing such short choppy, stilted essays or articles. I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are genuinely trying to help in their way. As was Sunseekernv in his replies to Cherokee.

I'm not a writer, but am an avid and eclectic reader. I can appreciate a short, to the point essay - where appropriate. I can even appreciate a good snappy tweet, but for deeper, more meaningful ideas, (which I prefer), well, Well Done You! These are fantastic and there is obviously an audience willing and able to read and digest them. I personally think there are more readers out there who would be receptive to such in depth 'long' analyses on many other subjects as well, if given the chance.

John Michael Greer said...

Dltrammel, thank you! I didn't know that essay was available online; now I can tell everybody who wants tips on writing fantasy to read that first. Poul Anderson is a major favorite of mine; his future ice age novel The Winter of the World had a huge impact on my imagination.

Twilight, thank you.

Daelach, a very good point -- and timely, too, because next week's post is going to talk about one way the past gets rewritten to fit the preferred narratives of the present. Stay tuned!

Kevin, I also thought about the old trick that tennis professionals use to mess over each other's playing: you ask the other person exactly where he puts his thumb on the racket handle. That'll usually screw up his playing long enough to win a match. As for Watson's ejaculations, good! Very good.

Brian, I probably read too much Beowulf as a child. ;-) As for Strunk and White, not that I know of -- I wasn't a fan of E.B. White's children's novels, for that matter. (Joan North, who seems to have been completely forgotten these days, was far more my style.)

Izzy, as long as you didn't fail your saving role against death by boredom. ;-) Your teacher's metaphor works -- readers on the distaff side may exchange the skirt for a Scotsman's kilt if they wish. As for Innsmouth, I'm glad you liked it! Yes, the romance went fast, but that does happen, especially among people who are facing serious danger -- if you know anybody who remembers the Second World War, you might ask them how often people met and got engaged practically on the spur of the moment when one of them was about to head overseas into combat. The second volume -- Kingsport rather than Arkham, btw; Arkham is the last of the seven books in the heptalogy -- has no romance in it at all; I'll even trail a clue or two here and mention that Jenny Parrish rather than Owen Merrill is the viewpoint character.

Brian, okay, I just about snorted tea up my nose. Nicely handled!

Lucretia, trust me, I was laughing hard by the time I finished reading Madmagic's screed.

Lizzy, of course skin color has health implications, as do many other things. I tend to think that people need to be allowed to make their own health care decisions, though.

Ryan, oh, granted. "Human see, human do!" Getting past that takes some work.

Adrian, I'm really sorry to hear that -- and I'm of the opinion that teachers who do things like that ought to be flogged. May I suggest something, though? Consider taking back your own writing ability. You'll have to push past the bitter emotions from that experience, which isn't easy, but regaining the ability to write, and to enjoy the writing process, really is worth doing.

Carlos M. said...

Just wanted to add to Les' comment:

As one of the foreign readers (and commenters, as of last week), it's really difficult for me to say what my "first language" really is. I grew up in a trilingual household, like most Filipinos do. I'd say Tagalog is my first language, but I grew up speaking 2.5 languages. The first two would be Tagalog and English. The "0.5" would be Chavacano, a Spanish creole and the regional language of my father's hometown, which I can understand perfectly but have minor difficulty speaking.

I work for a small, multinational software development firm, and I've been asked a few times when I learned to speak English. The honest answer is that I grew up with it, such that I was young enough that I don't remember learning it!

Regarding "Tradelish", my mom is a manager for a small business. Her hobby has been writing for as long as I can remember, which shows in her tendency to use elaborate prose in business correspondence. The office staff notices this and frequently quizzes her on the meaning of this word and that sentence. This led her to start posting the "Word of the Day" on the bulletin board. It was quite the hit in her office!

People can be as smart or dumb with language as you expect them. Unfortunately, we frequently expect people to speak and write as dumb as the machines they work on, which leads to "Tradelish". For me, the worst has got to be Corporatese, which manages to be both dumb while also being overly complex. Of course, dumb and unnecessarily complex is exactly how the big corporate world thinks and works, so this is no surprise.

Izzy said...

@JMG: Ah, I thought I'd gotten the subtitle wrong--brain is still recovering from vacation. Looking forward to all of them!

(And absolutely agreed on romance. The danger angle has helped me out a lot in my own writing: I do genre romance for contract, where the standards demand a permanent happy ending, so "people in danger" plus "historical" are my two fallback reasons--that and remembering that my perspective is very skewed.*)

Kilts, especially on the right sort of Scotsman, are one of the great achievements of civilization.

* Conversation with a friend, about a mutual friend:

Me: "God, I couldn't imagine getting married at twenty-two."
Friend: "Izzy, you couldn't imagine getting married at forty-two."
Me: "...point."

John Michael Greer said...

Ecologist, you're welcome and thank you. Yeah, I tend to think that there's at least a little political motivation behind the sustained effort to convince children not to write well, speak well, or think well.

O. Hinds, thank you! The Lardbucket really is the gift that keeps on giving...

Beneath, glad to hear that you're recovering well from your schooling. It can take a while, no question.

Clay, yes, I was thinking about that, too.

Nastarana, thank you. The thing is, I enjoy troll-baiting, and doing it with perfect politeness is to my mind a pleasant bit of elegance, like the flourish of the matador's cape as he steps neatly out of the way of the bull. (Given the amount of bull on the internet, that metaphor somehow comes easily to mind...)

Tim, once again, you're welcome!

Dammerung, hmm! I may have to pop over there and have a look at the discussion. The way communities of discourse evolve their own standards of communication is an interest of mine.

Alice, now there's someone I haven't heard of in a very long time! Your daughter is in for a real treat.

Dudley, it depends on what I'm writing. Some of my nonfiction projects start with a detailed chapter outline and go from there. Others start with a stack of assorted Archdruid Report posts and not much else. My fiction usually starts with a few vividly imagined scenes; once I have some sense of those, I write them, and the rest of the story unfolds around them. That's the kind of writing I like best, because very often I have no more idea what's going on than my viewpoint characters do, and the writing process is a journey of discovery.

Dammerung, funny. True, but funny.

Friction, I've seen way too many people come out of Mrs. McNitpick's classes unable to write at all, or so convinced that they had no writing talent that they gave up trying, to agree with you. Here again, the opposite of one bad idea is usually another bad idea; there's such a thing as too little structure, granted, but there's also such a thing as too much.

Sister Crow, thank you. Yes, I've also seen the writers who are too deep inside the subgenre to notice that they're engaged in self-parody, and the snobs who think they can make a few bucks slumming and heap up the cliches without ever noticing it. Ooog.

Myriad, by all means post the predictions. You're a regular, and that has certain privileges when it comes to things that are off topic for the week but on topic for the blog...

Dammerung said...

If you ever do, make sure 8chan rather than 4chan. Sadly, our forerunner has been lost to Alphabets and viral marketers.

Justin said...

JMG, I have to sympathize with your comment about "Why on earth should I perform according to the standards of these people?" when it comes to school. The structure and general organization of schooling in North America is definitely not an accident, the purpose of the whole structure is to select for those who like following orders, rather than doing things for their own sake.

I've recently been mulling over the idea that the perfect world would be one of pure irrationality, where everything which is done is done for its own sake, and it seems like the modern order is the exact opposite of that. It has occurred to me that the first types of pure reason, equations, presented to children are cases where one nullifies things in order to solve problems. Although there is nothing wrong with algebra, it seems to me like the perfect outcome of pure rationality is mass suicide. Of course, I have no rational proof ;)

Justin said...

Dammerung, I will remind you that Operation Google persisted for exactly as long as necessary to get a reaction out of the chattering class, and then mostly stopped once it was no longer funny.

/pol/ vs the mainstream media is rather like the Afghani heroes vs. Russian or NATO imperialists, although not requiring much sacrifice on the part of the average /pol/acks.

However I think that the basic imageboard structure - no usernames, no ego, no 'points', like Reddit or Facebook is something very special and probably fairly unique in human history.

Jay Moses said...

I enjoy your writing style. Many thanks. And now I'm going to dig out and renew my acquaintance with The Once
And Future King. It's been too long.

Crow Hill said...

JMG : thank you for sharing your experience in writing.

My question concerns the matter of authority in essay writing for posts on my blog--the word authority incidentally having the same root as the word author. I feel shy to use expressions such as “I believe” etc when giving my opinion as an individual on the work of teams of professionals—I have a background in pseudo-neutral scientific and technical writing.

More specifically, the essay I’m having a hard time with is a commentary on a WWF report which brings up the conflict between the economic growth ideology and the biosphere.

For my analysis I’m using Herman Daly (an economist) and John Cobb’s “For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future”. By the way the book, published in 1989, besides analysing what the authors describe as “the fallacies of misplaced concreteness in economics”, is a how-to “collapse before the rush” guide along the same lines you write about ; it also addresses the plight of the American working class who back then were losing jobs to the Mexican maquiladoras.

I was lucky at school to have a French teacher (I went to school in a French-speaking region) who was very much interested in our writing because he was himself setting out on a writer’s career; it would eventually lead him to obtain the Goncourt prize.

On another topic, I would be very grateful if you could give me the link or titles of the posts you wrote on monasteries and other intentional communities several years ago.

Crow Hill said...

Your comment JMG : “I encourage everyone who lives within range of an independent bookstore to buy your books there” and more generally the discussion on books in this week’s comment section of ADR.

I received a cold shower from a friend to start 2017. Books and the local bookstore have been an important part of my life. At the same time (and also through the books I read) I have become a person very much concerned with the fate of the biosphere in human hands.

As I was casually saying to a friend that I would pass by the local bookstore to see what they had, s/he answered back that s/he didn’t support bookstores nor books, reminding me of the link between books and deforestation. Incidentally s/he had just bought a Kindle and said that that was better from the ecological footprint point of view. I looked this up on the web and the answer is not clear cut (no pun intended). I much prefer paper books but then should I sacrifice my preference for the sake of the biosphere?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

So I went back to the 1952 hardback version of the Concise Oxford Dictionary - Fourth Edition, no less, to check out the earlier definition of the word "Arrogant" and that book writes: "Overbearing; presumptuous; haughty."

That definition of the word arrogant, is clearly a rabbit hole of many different meanings... Bearing is defined as: "heraldic charge or device". Presumptuous is defined in there as: "Arrogance, assurance; taking for granted, thing taken for granted". Haughty is defined there as: "Proud, arrogant; dignified".

It is interesting that many of the words in that definition have positive connotations and there are far fewer negative connotations than I had first considered. Fascinating, and I always took it to be an insult. Thanks for the correction, I really appreciate that. ;-)!

There are times that I feel uncertain about the path that I am on and the sacrifices that I have made whilst my peers party on and tell themselves stories of limitlessness. However, those are very rare moments of doubt and they soon pass. And then there are other times that I read books like Overshoot and I know that I have acknowledged and come to terms with, but at the same time have also completely underestimated the sheer scale of the present situation.

The armchair solar power theorists of last week would do well to pick up a copy of that 1952 Concise Oxford Dictionary - Fourth Edition, because then they may discover that the word courage is defined as: "nerve oneself to a venture". Just sayin...

And if they believe that that is a display of arrogance, then so be it.

Cheers

Chris

Robert Mathiesen said...

Daelach very wisely wrote:

"As for past and present - I guess the conventional wisdom is that the past formed the present in terms of more or less linear causality. But actually, the present also forms the past by attaching meaning and interpretation to what happened, and of course by selection bias. History is constantly being rewritten to accomodate the present perspective. Seen this way, the past itself may be constant, but our perception of it isn't, and it isn't things we act upon, but our perception of things - Plato's cave allegory."

This comment of his reminded me strongly of what T. S. Eliot wrote about poetry almost a century ago:

"What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past." -- "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) [most easily available in Eliot's book of essays, _The Sacred Wood_ (1921)]

Eliot's entire essay, though written with only art in mind, permanently changed the entire way I thought about history and time, not just as a scholar, but also as a human being living in the world.

Unknown said...

Hello JMG. When you started on the topic of "rules for writing" in this week's post, I thought to myself "There are rules??". I would have loved to have been taught rules of literary writing in high school, as I always felt that there was a right way to do it but I had to guess. Also, each year's new English teacher seemed to have his/her own set of rules. That is why I loved science and math. In those classes, I was given basic rules that had specific answers, which then were a platform for our creativity in problem solving and coming up with novel ways to find out new information.
I'll be getting a copy of Strunk and White's soon, to fill in that void in my education. Thanks!

Greg Belvedere said...

Excellent post and very timely for me. I have always enjoyed your writing style, but I have noticed that as much as I try to share your posts many people don't have the attention span for them. Their loss.

When I look back at my education I count myself very lucky. While nobody gets out unharmed, my Catholic high school really went against the grain of contemporary trends and focused on basics. They taught grammar, but put a lot of emphasis on simply practicing writing by writing for classes other than English. I remember my senior year English teacher working with Strunk and White and I need to find another copy.

I'm currently working on some poetry (children's book), but I think your advice on not writing and editing prose at the same time is something I need to follow. It could make the process quicker and easier. I have noticed that many successful writers have more adamant rules regarding process than they do regarding style. Your advice for instance, or simply writing every day or at the same time everyday seem common and common sense suggestions.

The kids' schedules have shifted again, so I currently have a bit more free time to write. So this week's post comes at a good time.

Juhana said...

I believe that as historian and esoteric you are interested about traditions, especially those which survive without official support, survive even when actively discouraged. That theme resonates well with you underlying thesis of “seedbearers for the future”.

Now as we celebrate day of Three Kings here in Finland, I would like to share this amazing folk tradition from my home country with you. Tradition which has survived almost unchanged five hundred tears, even when faced with official condemnation.

Finland was converted into Catholicism during 12th and 13th century, with series of crusades. These crusades subjugated original tribal kingdoms into semi-civilized border area between Eastern and Western Church. As liturgies in Finland were held with Latin, priests attached mystery plays into church ceremonies, to educate Finns about one true faith. So, during Middle Ages, “star boys” held mystery play about Three Kings paying homage to Lord born into stable. These plays were apparently very popular.

When Reformation came and Finland was converted into Protestantism, these mystery plays were banned. From the point view of Crown, the matter was resolved after that. Yet, tradition persisted. From 16th century onwards, at the countryside, people wandered from farm to farm, playing this familiar mystery play in folk version. After the play, actors/singers were rewarded with food and gifts. The Crown banned this practice many times, at least in years 1655 and 1797 hefty fines were ordered for anyone acting/singing this mystery play. And fines were really hefty, meant to cripple even middle-income family.

In spite of this, mystery play persisted, in almost unchanged form, for centuries. Official condemnation hindered it not a bit. As it was sung by simple, ordinary people, all place names and such were converted into Finnish forms, and lyrics also bear memories from events in Russian Empire during 18th and 19th centuries (emperor Alexander Third is mentioned, etc.). Main thing is, this mystery play survived almost five hundred years, even when banned and persecuted against.

Mystery play is called “tiernapojat” (star boys) in Finnish, and today it is sung by heavy metal bands and church choirs alike. It tells the story of three wise man wandering to Bethlehem, and about king Herodes, who orders his troops to campaign of infanticide to prevent birth of one true king. If there are stronger examples how traditions can survive from generation to generation among ordinary people, there are not many. My grandmother's father acted/sung these songs in his youth. I did same as a kid, our group of singers guided by my father. Now my wife has talked me into guiding this same play when our kid is big enough to join the singers. Oral traditions are strong vechiles for survival of ideas.

Metal version, with traditional acting:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QH2TCV3PjE0

Choir version, without acting:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xKwl7tWLXQ

Mister Roboto said...

I've been told by many people that I'm a natural writer, and I notice that I take to this form expression rather more readily than speaking when it comes to putting across complex ideas. So I guess that means the way I write, ridiculously long and complex sentences and all, was something that just kind of happened on its own to a very large extent. Probably the two biggest influences I can see when look back upon my formative years is stumbling upon George Orwell's 1984 when I was in junior high school (I had the reading level of a college freshman when I was a high-school freshman), and receiving the benefit of advanced English classes in a boarding school for my final two years of high school.

My blog rarely lives up to my potential as a writer. But that may be because I have finally realized that our narcissistic society is simply going to continually double down on things that don't really work until a major dislocation forces it to stop. And there is no guarantee about what will happen following those dark days. So perhaps I'm just feeling just a wee bit discouraged at this point in time.

Austin Levreault said...

JMG I really liked this essay. I wish the weekly posts here were book length (A little hyperbole :) I'm sure that wouldn't be good for the author) Don't we all like using a word processor to get our writing done? Studying how the nineteenth century authors wrote their works, a lot of the old methodologies seem like common sense but they're not common sense in todays world. Organizing thoughts on paper without a computer is becoming a lost art. Have most publishers have lost the ability to deal with imperfect ideas because it's more difficult to mass produce something imperfect? And after all mass production is central to industrial society.

Eric S. said...

Thanks for this week. I had a creative writing professor in college who was very harsh on my essays because he said I wrote like someone from the 19th century and he wanted me to exchange the flowery, ornamented language for a more modern, natural sounding voice. It took me a long time to find a voice that felt like me again after that, and I still sometimes look back on my old writing and miss being able to write in quite the same style as I used to.

The no editing while writing piece of advice is extremely useful, and is something that I will definitely start putting into practice, I'm an obsessive perfectionist and that's usually my biggest drawback in most everything I do. One question on that subject though: where do you put researching, (and/or world building when it comes to fiction)? Do you meticulously plan and outline everything ahead of time so you know what it is you'll need to know? Or do you ever find yourself in a situation where an essay suddenly and unexpectedly turns towards something you really ought to know more about before you write, or where a character in a story winds up in a situation that you aren't quite familiar with the mechanics of (either because it's part of our world you hadn't given much thought to before, or part of their world you hadn't developed yet) and have to pause to fill in that gap in your knowledge and continue? Or do you just write through the gaps in your knowledge to the best of your ability and make further research part of your editing process?

Castanea_d said...

JMG, pretty much everything you wrote about writing applies equally to music, especially the development of taste – listen to a LOT of music, and the things that matter to you, listen to them many times. If you can come up with a written score (easy for most classical music, not so easy for other genres), get it and study it, with the idea of figuring out how the composer made it to be so interesting.

If it is in a genre without much published music, the tried-and-true way is to transcribe solos from recordings. The jazz musicians consider this to be essential, because it makes you put the thing under the magnifying glass until you have every detail of it on paper, and much more importantly, in your head. Then it will influence your own music making, which is the main point of the exercise. Some of the old-timers (e.g., J. S. Bach) would spend countless hours copying other people’s scores by hand, again as a means of internalizing what was there.

Writer’s block: I like your thought that it is the confusion of writing and editing that brings the writer to a screeching halt. One way out for musicians is to improvise. Take the idea(s) that you are working on to a piano and “play” with them for a while, with no judgments as to good or bad, and no intention of keeping anything from the improvisation; it usually gets things flowing in the right direction again. It may be that your suggestion to write with the computer screen turned off would be the writer’s equivalent.

@Jessi Thompson, thank you for the ideas from the visual arts, which sound like they are in the same direction, and especially for this: “I would argue you don't really understand the rule until you've found a way to break it with skill. Ultimately, it comes down to the question ‘What is the purpose of this rule? What is it accomplishing?’”

This is absolutely true for music. As for where to find “the rules,” my favorite sources are Old Books: Gradus ad Parnassum (J. J. Fux, 1725. This book is how Joseph Haydn learned the craft, carefully working through the exercises on his own), and Fundamentals of Musical Composition (Arnold Schoenberg, published posthumously in 1967, with most of the book written by 1948. He was himself the founder of the twelve-tone school of composition, but this book is based strictly on the older models, especially Beethoven, with the idea much like what Jessi said in the comment above about the visual arts - you cannot break the rules until you understand them.) For keyboard musicians (of which I am one), Essay on the True Art of Playing the Keyboard (C. P. E. Bach, 1753. Much of the book is a treatise on harmony, how to move from one chord to the next, based in large part on the work of his only music teacher – J. S. Bach, his father).

I almost never comment here, but I read these essays every week and have learned much from them. Thank you.

Gavin Harris said...

Hi JMG, thank you for another informative post. I have an old Strunk & White from years ago loitering on a bookshelf somewhere, time to go searching. As a worker in the technical arena, I have found that I've developed a terminal reflexive editor that means that I can't get to the end of a sentence without the urge to go back and change it, rapidly killing whatever original thought was going on in my head at the time; "But it has got to be RIGHT!!" wails the plaintive voice in the back of my head when the red squiggly lines start to appear.
I have found that using a voice recorder on my phone allows me to get the concepts in my head out without there being any words to edit has helped a lot. Just a thought for those of us who can't avoid looking at the screen as we type.

Cheers
Gavin

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20170106T182625Z


Having referred in my comment Wednesday night ("1/4/17, 9:21 PM") to a writing method which I outline under the title "Logic Blueprints Take the Stress out of Writing Nonfiction" at http://www.metascientia.com/PNNN____lit/PNNN____logic_blueprints.html, I now find remarks along similar lines from Bill Pulliam ("1/5/17, 12:38 PM") and Esn ("1/5/17, 1:58 AM").

Esn, in particular, seems to have worked out, independently, a method resembling mine not only in spirit but in some of its mechanics, including in its resort to bullets in a flat-ASCII ".txt" file: I /.../ start out by laying out all the discrete thoughts, facts and theories that I want to convey, as well as references, in bullet-point form in a .txt file, not worrying at all about style, but only about conciseness - with a new line for each new thought. As I do more research, I gradually edit the file to add new things (so I don't forget them), fix any old ones that need fixing, and rearrange bits as I get a clearer idea for how everything fits together architecturally - what should come first, what is a logical subcategory of what, etc.

JMG seems right in his assessment ("1/5/17, 7:00 PM") that Esn's (and Bill Pulliam's, and my) approach is less a disagreement with JMG's own advice than a variant on it: Esn, in fact you're following my advice the other way around - editing first, and then writing. If it works for you, by all means!

Is anyone else in this readership, faced with the need to write nonfiction, able to report experiences like Esn's and Bill's?




Tom

http://toomaskarmo.blogspot.com

Varun Bhaskar said...

Archdruid,

The ability to string words together to form a cohesive thought is an increasingly rare skill, and I’m not just talking about writing. Popular authors prefer listicals, bullet points, and two sentences interrupted with dozens of infographics, graphs, and images. Since I started reading the report I’m less able to deal with short-form texts, but my ability to sort through the logic of a statement has grown immensely. I often wonder if the short-form format actually prevent people from articulating their ideas to themselves, and thus less able to articulate it to the public. Could the collateral damage from reading something poorly written, over and over, be the inability to communicate clearly even verbally?

The short-form proposed by your commenter last week may have reached more people, but I doubt whether it would have had the same impact. One criticism that can be fairly leveled at the doomers and collapseniks (the people actually understand the twin dangers of peak oil and climate change) is that they keep trying to present a very complicated issue in the simplest of terms, and that may not actually be possible. We are talking about the real world repercussion of a complex system after all, if you dumb it down too much then you’re going to miss the nuance.

I’ve read RobM’s criticism of your work from multiple people, that you take too many words to explore one or two ideas, but how else can a writer explain a complex system? When following the movement of a complex system you must notice each strand before picking one to follow, but that doesn’t make the other strands less important. One or two ideas at the end may sum up what you’re trying to say, and may be presentable as bullet points or infographics, but to that doesn’t help understand the process. In this case the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, it is simply a product of the sum, and the sum NEEDS to be understood before it can be spoken about.

By the way your troll baiting and general rejection of unpleasant people has a lot of the doomers quite angry at you. The Doomstead Diner ran a series of posts that accused you of being the leader of a fascist cult, with a thorough analysis of your druidic headdress as a clear indication that you are a cult leader. The posts were too poorly written to be worth the time even for a good laugh, which is a pity because a few good jabs keeps a writer on his toes and strengthens his wit.

Regards,

Varun

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20170106T190345Z


Dear Esn,


Thanks for private communication and for your comments on TADR timestamped "1/5/17, 3:50 AM" and "1/5/17, 3:51 AM".

The traditional distinction between legitimate journalism and propaganda should now be recalled. I agree with you that attempts to manipulate opinion are everywhere - not only in office blocks like 55 Savushkina, but in NATO cities. As I remarked in my essay on 55 Savushkina this week at http://toomaskarmo.blogspot.com (I write as a Catholic), we additionally find unacceptable stuff in the Catholic blogosphere.

As far as the NATO cities go, you will have noticed that I refer in my essay to my own discouraging experience with the CBC, in connection with coverage of a 2003 Toronto anti-USA street demo.

There is a further point which I should now make, and I think did not make with full force in my essay. We cannot condone propaganda from any side, whether ours or some adversary's.

It will now be asked: how does one define propaganda? Since this topic requires an essay in its own right, it is hard to do it justice here.

In particular, simply to say "Dishonest writing" is to repeat, in unclear terms, the very thing whose definition is being sought. Everyone will then ask, "What constitutes honesty?"

As a first attempt (JMG, or you, or others, might be able to weigh in), I would make two points.

(a) The journalist who lies about facts, in other words who errs against the precept "nothing but the truth", is a propagandist.

(b) The journalist who errs against the precept "the whole truth" is a propagandist.

The commercial world often resorts to propaganda of the second type. If companies err against "nothing but the truth" in their advertising, they can be hauled up to Advertising Standards Canada, as I indeed haul up DG Group subsidiary Corsica in my 2016-12-20 action reported at http://toomaskarmo.blogspot.com under the headline "DDO&P: Open Letter to Advertising Standards Canada, with Municipality and Others". However, watchdogs like Advertising Standards Canada are powerless when companies err against "whole truth" - as when DG Group showcases those of its projects that are environmentally positive, under the banner "Bringing Life to Land", at http://www.dggroup.ca/.

If we read enough propaganda, we start to think it acceptable. This is especially the case because the requirement to tell the whole truth cannot, in a correctly liberal society, be enforced at law. So far as correctly liberal ideals allow a legislature to go, all it can say is that the onus to seek out the full truth lies on shoppers.

Lest people think I am being overzealous, I add that courtroom advocacy (a different thing from journalism) is legitimate, as is the mere expression of opinion in an explicitly flagged "Opinion" piece. In my essay on 55 Savushkina Ulitsa, I cite, as examples of writing which is silly and yet honest, three of the Toronto Globe and Mail's old opinion pieces.

Writers who state clearly that they are offering mere opinions are seeking to sway their readers. This is okay, because they are not seeking to manipulate.

One of my reasons for reading TADR is its general freedom from propagandistic reporting: either JMG reports facts in an adequately balanced way or he signals with adequate clarity that his voice is editorial.


Tom

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20170106T190603Z


Dear Esn again:


Unless you advise otherwise, I will assume that I have now, by commenting here on TADR, dealt in a sufficiently diligent way with the online comment which you conveyed to me privately, through the "blogger" comment-submission interface for http://toomaskarmo.blogspot.com.

But if I am wrong in my assumption, please submit a comment through that interface again. As you will note from my commenting guidelines, as published in 2016 April at http://toomaskarmo.blogspot.com, I propose to publish all submitted comments without censorship, provided they disclose within their body text the writer's e-mail address, name, and municipality-plus-country of residence (yours did not), and also meet some basic standards of courtesy (yours did, thanks).


Hastily, cheerfully,


Tom

John Michael Greer said...

RPC, back in those distant days when I was involved in science fiction fandom, it was almost inevitably quoted as a law. Still, your mileage may vary!

Mustard, thank you. I still think of that post as the best piece of writing I've yet done on this blog.

Lewis, the term that's used these days is Cli-Fi, which I find endearingly dorky. It has an extra payoff, too; a lot of science fiction fans pronounce the old acronym "Sci-Fi" as "skiffy," and Cli-Fi would then, vertiginously enough, be...

Bill, and there you have it -- ask three authors, get five answers. ;-) Congrats on the paying gig!

BFM, oh, I'm not sure I'd go that far. Some people just don't like my style of prose. That said, a lot of what passes for writing is aimed at people with the attention span of a gnat, and reinforces that limitation...

Whomever, good! Down the road a bit, I'm going to post something on reading, because the habits of reading that are taught by today's schooling and culture are profoundly destructive of the ability to think clearly. It's apropos that you read these essays with bourbon, by the way -- some of them are written with that beverage's genial assistance!

Avalterra, yep. That's the equal and opposite kind of bad pedagogy to Mrs. McNitpick's -- don't bother to teach anything. Since teachers aren't held accountable for the impact of their choices on their students' lives, a lot of really bad habits of faux-teaching remain glued in place.

Joel, I haven't read it; I'll look it up.

Mrbluesky, thank you. I'll certainly consider a series on systems thinking -- it's a huge issue and, ahem, would make a good book. As for curating comments, it's actually quite simple: again, there's a set of rules, around which I make minor exceptions, mostly to let through borderline examples that make good teaching moments, and of course to whack the occasional troll. If it won't be too self-referential -- and maybe even if it is -- I may just do a post on how to make an internet forum civil and interesting.

Ed-M, here again, "too many words" suggests that you're paying too much attention to a stripped-down (and potentially dumbed-down) summary of what you think I'm saying, rather than to what I'm actually saying. That's a very common habit these days, and will be addressed in the upcoming post about reading I mentioned to Whomever above.

Brian, exactly -- and Goldman's a great example; he knew exactly what he was doing by breaking the rules, and the way that shift in prose models the shift in consciousness between the two species is really impressive.

John Michael Greer said...

Onething, I get that. I have the same reaction to a lot of what's on the internet.

Marian, thank you!

Tomuru, Tolkien's definitely one of those love-him-or-hate-him authors; I know quite a few perfectly nice and highly literate people who can't stand his writing. For that matter, so is George R.R. Martin -- I find his recent works dreary, though I liked his earlier fiction. That's why each writer, or for that matter reader, concentrates on what he or she likes.

Chris, have you tried, when you get the "I hate all of it" reaction, putting the text away for another week and then seeing if you like it better? Some people find that useful. As for wry amusement, I can't help it -- a vast number of things amuse me, in a wry sort of way. ;-)

Sgage, an excellent point!

Caryn, so noted. I deal with trolls so often here that it's entirely possible that the occasional sincere but clumsy utterance gets whacked by mistake.

Carlos, I envy you that. Like most Americans, I didn't encounter any language but English in any depth until relatively late in my schooling -- three years of high school Russian, in my case -- and so the ease with which people raised in a multilingual setting can pick up more languages is something I'll never have. A note to my American readers with young children: get them learning a second language sooner rather than later!

Izzy, got it. One of the reasons I made the romance happen fast is that the story I want to tell, in one of its many dimensions, has to do mostly with Owen and Laura's marriage, not their initial falling-in-love period (the focus of so much romantic fiction). Lovecraft, almost despite himself, repeatedly makes the point that the worshippers of the tentacled Great Old Ones form communities with strong mutual ties of various kinds binding them together; I'm playing with that, and contrasting it to a disintegrating mainstream society as the series proceeds. Of course Lovecraft also fixates on the idea that the people in those sinister communities are Not Like Him, which just adds to the fun; my characters include all sorts of ethnicities and skin colors, different sexualities ranging from hetero- to homo- to asexual, and so on, not because I have the least interest in political correctness but because (a) that's the way HPL set up the mythos and (b) it gives me a more interesting palette to work with.

Dammerung, oh, I know. I've lurked on both from time to time. (I also lurk on a range of other controversial sites, including those on the social-justice left; it's quite an education.)

Phil Harris said...

JMG
I vouchsafe evidence to support your thesis. A good while ago on this blog I mentioned being put off writing stories when about 14 at school. The silly man thought he was protecting literary standards. I was basically told to grow up – just one red ink comment. I thereafter protected my imagination as well as my writing from official scrutiny. Nice though 60 years on to get a couple of stories accepted in the space bat challenge. Thank you for the challenge! Not as bad as for my dad who was taught that he could not draw. My conclusion was that it affected the way that he could actually see things for the rest of his life.

More generally, acquiring skill-sets – including good conversation – stands a chance of taking the ordinary run of daily life out of the 95% crap into the 5% non-crap zone. Occasionally such diligence might set the scene for one percent events. I am thinking of the guy who at the end of his career could use the synergy of his experience to land the airliner on the Hudson River. Or again we are lucky some studious type thought to get hold of the notes for Aristotle’s brilliant lectures. The past would have been different without these inputs, which is perhaps a thought for next week! The apparently ephemeral, even I guess one-offs like musical or dramatic performance, if prepared for enough can have favourable consequences in ends and purposes. Smile.

best
Phil H

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, that's a fascinating point. They could be introduced to classical logic, where the outcome is figuring out whether an argument makes sense or not, but instead, yes, it's "everything = 0." Hmm...

Jay, excellent! Enjoy.

Crow Hill, one of the great virtues of writing is that it's basically democratic. You get your say, and can make your case as strongly as you're able. Appeals to other people's authority, except in the form of references that confirm the credentials of a fact, weaken your prose. If you aim for a calm, confident tone, and rely on the logic of your argument rather than someone else's authority, you'll have all the authority you need!

Cherokee, I get called arrogant all the time. When I press people on that, they usually say something like "You always think you're right!" When I comment that, why, yes, when I say something, I do normally believe that I'm right to say it, and ask if they often say things they think are incorrect, they retire in confusion. I've come to think that the word "arrogant" in modern speech amounts to "willing to disagree with the conventional wisdom of our time" -- and if that's arrogant, so be it.

Here in the US -- I have no idea if it's available Down Under -- there's an ale with the winsome name "Arrogant B*st*rd Ale." It's really pretty good!

Robert, thanks for the reminder. I should reread that.

Unknown, yep -- that's one of the many bad practices in contemporary schooling. By all means have fun with Strunk & White!

Greg, exactly. Writing is all about process. Come to think of it, so are most other things.

Juhana, fascinating. Thank you for this!

Mister R., it's easy to get discouraged. It helps me to remember that it only takes a few people to make the kind of change that matters.

Austin, you should see the garbled messes that come over the transom at most publishers! I used to make extra cash as an outside reader for one press, and the amount of labor it took the copy editors to extract a readable book from some manuscripts would astound you. Publishers used to be much pickier than they are today, because they could afford to be.

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, I do a certain amount of research in advance, and write passages and short scenes that rely on details from the research. For example, much of the action of the sixth book of The Weird of Hali takes place either aboard the barque Miskatonic, an old square-rigged ship, or in the partially deglaciated landscape of a near-future Greenland; I didn't know a vast amount about big square-rigged sailing vessels, less about newly deglaciated landscapes, and even less about Greenland, so I've spent a couple of months now reading up on all those things, and I've got about 6,000 words of detailed scenes for that otherwise unwritten book. Since I don't write sequentially, that's easy to fit in. In the same way, if I suddenly realize that I need to know something and I don't have the facts to hand, I write something else while waiting for the local interlibrary loan system to get me the book I need.

Castanea_d, thank you! This is most interesting. I know precisely nothing about composing music, and it's fascinating to hear that things are so closely parallel.

Gavin, the other thing you can do is turn off the spell checker and the grammar checker while you write. You can turn them back on when you edit, if you need them. For my part, the first thing I do when I get a "new" used computer is go into the word processing program and turn off all such things permanently. They really do get in the way of the writing process!

Varun, ding ding ding! We have a winner. One of the major problems with chopped-up, dumbed-down, bulletized writing is that it fosters chopped-up, dumbed-down, bulletized thinking. In particular, if the points that matter have to do with the subtle connections among disparate phenomena -- and nearly everything in this blog has to do with those in one way or another -- the kind of prose Madmagic wanted to push on me literally makes it impossible to understand such things, by stripping language of the very thing I'm trying to talk about. As for the trolls, that's funny. "He must be a cult leader, he wears a funny hat!" is particularly priceless.

Phil, exactly. Exactly!

Ed-M said...

"Ed-M, here again, "too many words" suggests that you're paying too much attention to a stripped-down (and potentially dumbed-down) summary of what you think I'm saying, rather than to what I'm actually saying. That's a very common habit these days, and will be addressed in the upcoming post about reading I mentioned to Whomever above."

JMG, I totally disagree with you here. I read the whole thing, and carefully, too. I just think you missed a BIG chance to use irony to score a point!

That is all.

Peter VE said...

Dear Crow Hill,
In your comment on bookstores, you wrote of a friend: "s/he had just bought a Kindle and said that that was better from the ecological footprint point of view."
I have books which were published over a hundred years ago. They remain beautifully legible, and the trees which were cut down have long since been replaced by new growth. I've had the pleasure of viewing a Shakespeare first folio which was published in 1623, probably on a linen based paper.
When your friend's Kindle dies in the next few years, all the books therein will be unreadable, and the cobalt and lead in the battery will end up in the environment. Meanwhile, massive server farms require equally massive amounts of power to feed that Kindle its books (as well as host ADR, oh well....). The Kindle will end up mostly unrecyclable, with most of the components in the E-waste piles, and the circuit board will probably be burnt down to retrieve the bits of metals whilst poisoning the burners.
So, I say to you, go proudly into that bookstore to order the latest book by JMG (many of which are print to order). If you don't know that you want/need the book, borrow it from your library. And, for many books which our esteemed Druid recommends, the used bookstore is your friend.
Read in peace.

librarian@play said...

“Mrs. Melba McNitpick”—a name worthy of Dickens. Any chance you’d write us a story about her sordid affair with Mr. M'Choakumchild? And, if so, what genre would that be? ;)

Izzy said...

@JMG: Oh, that sounds awesome! And I'm glad you're coming back to them in future books.

That's basically how I tend to feel about varied character types, too. I'm more on the SJW side of things in politics/nonfiction writing, but in writing, I mostly do what I do because as a writer, it's interesting to write about a bunch of different ethnicities/religions/sexualities and likewise as a reader*, and because I know it's often nice for any given audience member to see characters like them now and again. I'm nice once in a while. :) (And besides, a reader who appreciates seeing characters like them is a reader who might be induced to give me another six dollars in the future.)

Two other notes now that I'm off work:

1) I really liked Innsmouth as a starting point, especially because, for me, that has always been one of the HPL stories that was least horrifying--all the terror seems to be discovering that the guy has "tainted blood" or whatever, which, from a modern POV...meh. (I *have* joked that the inevitable-transformation-horror thing might work decently as a metaphor for middle age: "I fall asleep at half past ten! Two drinks give me a hangover, and I can no longer digest circus peanuts! WHAT'S HAPPENING TO MEEEEEE?") So I really liked what you did with that.

2) In my day job, I'm an editor, and a fairly ruthless one at that; furthermore, I spent much of my youth reading bad fantasy (oh, Robert Jordan) of the sort that I can best describe as "thesaurus bukakke", so I am very...attuned, you might say...to people being overly wordy, and I've never seen that in any of your writing. You never seem to use more words than you have actual things to say, which is both good and rare.

* Although I have my limits: I've no time for fragile women, "alpha men", and right-wing attitudes toward sex, which is one of the many reasons I never bothered with Twilight and similar.

Kyle said...

The points about music hadn't occurred to me, and I can't believe have domain-blind I've been. If I write a song on my guitar, I never write in order. Sometimes a lonesome chorus will hang out in my mind for months before a verse gets written, much less anything else. And I've always written poetry or lyrics the same way: non-linearly, as it occurred to me, to be pieced together whenever.

Yet I've never tried that approach with prose, or even considered it. How embarrassing. I'll have to give it a go if I ever make another run at fiction.

Unknown said...

Hi I've been reading your column since way back in the early peak oil days, I get to it most weeks and go back and catch up when I've missed a few. I find your prose fantastic, I'm a big fan. Thank You

Dylan said...

@Raymond Duckling: Thanks for your comment regarding the fuel situation in Mexico. It's very helpful for others of us trying to imagine how things might play out in our parts of the world.

Here in the Canadian province of Ontario there's been a recent public backlash against the high price of electricity, blamed partly on renewables and partly on the Ontario government's mismanagement of its renewable energy program. It's not nearly as bad as where you are, but it will almost certainly result in the current reigning party being booted out next election and the next administration looking with decidedly less friendliness toward wind, solar and biomass.

Nowhere in the media reporting do I see the notion that we are going to have to pay more for energy regardless of how we get it. So for the moment, facing the truth of the matter seems to guarantee political suicide.

It seems it will have to be people like us, without political futures on the line, who will have to keep raising the issue.

Zanshin said...

Dear Alice Y,

Synchronicity! I was watching a BBC documentary immediately before reading your comment, 'Britain's Lost Waterlands: Escape to Swallows and Amazons Country'. It was my great good fortune to be exposed at an early age to Arthur Ransome's books, and to Ernest Thompson Seton's 'Two Little Savages'.

You may recall the telegram from the children's father early in S&A: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. We've lived in an age where being a duffer is OK, and hasn't result in drowning. That's changing, I think...

John Michael, I won't entreat you not to change your writing at the urging of the aforementioned duffers; I know that won't happen. Your ideas and words offer stimulation, comfort and, yes, sheer joy of aesthetic appreciation. Here is a man who knows his craft, and I can't offer higher praise than that.

Peter


Kate Wolfe-Quintero said...

Your writing reminds me of well-crafted sermons. You aim to convince, you take digressions where needed, you reference source texts, and you are conversational. It's very soul-satisfying.

John Michael Greer said...

Ed-M, then by all means use irony that way the next time you feel it's appropriate. Did I mention that I'm hard to influence? ;-)

Librarian, a really over-the-top Dickensian novel about a contemporary US public school would be well worth writing. It's not something I could do well, but oh, man -- yep, you'd have Mrs. McNitpick carrying on a flaming affair with another teacher, whom I'd be more likely to name Choakum D. Childe; you'd have the regular multiple choice tests with absurd questions, the frantic fixation on quantitative measurement, all in a vast sprawling Gormenghast of a modern school that looks like a medium-security prison but with fewer amenities. It could be quite the tale.

Izzy, well, there you are. I'm a Burkean conservative, but Burke himself was an advocate for religious freedom for Catholics at a time when that was about as popular as supporting the rights of Muslims today, and he lent his own house to a group of traveling Hindus who'd been denied any other place to celebrate one of their festivals. I also grew up in a multiracial household -- my stepmother is Japanese-American, and far and away the nicest person in the family -- and thus I find religious, culture, and ethnic differences enjoyable rather than threatening, and worth including in fiction. As for fragile women and "alpha" men, I'd be more interested in those if they hadn't been done to the point of utter dreariness long before I was born. Let's have something different for a change, please!

The thing to remember about Lovecraft's "tainted blood" tales is that he returned to the theme obsessively over the course of his career; as I've noted elsewhere, I think a lot of his bigotry was driven by a suspicion, or perhaps actual knowledge, that somebody in his family tree was just passing for white. (That's extremely common among serious bigots.) As for "thesaurus bukkake" -- oh my. I laughed good and hard at that; thank you. I've never read Jordan, but Stephen Donaldson was a name to conjure with in my teen years (though I was one of those people who called his first book "Lord Fane's Bowels"), and he's also a very bad example of the syndrome!

Kyle, I'd say give it a shot!

Unknown, you're welcome and thank you.

Kate, thank you! I haven't heard a lot of sermons, and most of them were pretty flat; I'd be glad to hear more if they tended otherwise.

Rita said...

Here are some tips for anyone writing for standardized tests or helping a child to prepare for one.

Read the prompt (question) very carefully. It is usually not possible to ask for clarification, but do, if possible. Pay attention to length of response. If it asks for three sentences, write three sentences. If it asks for two examples, give two examples.

It is helpful to include words from the prompt in your response. "What is your favorite novel. Describe the main problem in this novel." "My favorite novel is The Black Stallion. The main problem in this novel is for Blackie to survive a series of owners who mistreat him. He overcomes this problem by being strong and patient. Fortunately he is returned to his original happy home." And so forth.

Don't be too creative. Don't answer the above prompt with, "I don't read novels. My favorite reading is autobiographies of famous sports figures." If you do you may write a brilliant essay that scores a 0.

I have worked scoring standard exams, so these tips are from experience.

Robert Mathiesen said...

JMG, what an utterly fascinating guess about Lovecraft's obsession with "tainted blood" and his own family tree. Havinmg lived here in HPL's home-town, Providence, for about 50 years, I can say that this hypothesis feels so very right, so in keeping with the entire multiracial history of the city and its upper crust's older attitudes toward that heritage, that I am confident one mght eventually be able to dig up genealogical proof of your guess.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

An excellent definition and it is nice to be in good company! Arrogance is defined as: "willing to disagree with the conventional wisdom of our time". I like that and of course that is what they are saying.

I make mistakes and am the first to admit those errors and offer corrections, but why people would believe that I'm writing falsehoods is beyond me. It seems weird, but thank-you very much for the crafty tool. :-)!

That sounds like an excellent beer! And a great name too. I hope that it was a proper dark ale?

Hey, my wife is currently reading the most excellent book "The Art of Fermentation" by Sandor Katz. I recommend that book highly. As you know we already make our own wines, meads and sake, but we are about to launch into making... ta-da!... Beer! As my lady is the brew-master here and general all round knowledgeable person on fermented stuff, we are going right back to basics with the beer making process. No stone shall be left un-turned in our quest for a basic understanding of the beer making process. We have read widely on the subject and feel that far too many people over complicate what should be a simple process, but time will tell. We have seen that same tendency towards specialisation in the past and simply dismiss it as a turf war. Pah! Take that, plus I really enjoy explaining things in simple non-technical language. Plus how much fun is it making deliberate fun of big words! Anyway, it seems like a good use of a science degree majoring in mirco-biology as any that I've yet heard!

Cheers

Chris

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Librarian@play, JMG,

“Mrs. Melba McNitpick”—a name worthy of Dickens. Any chance you’d write us a story about her sordid affair with Mr. M'Choakumchild? And, if so, what genre would that be? ;)'

How about a mashup of Dickens / Hardy styles with clickbait internetese?

You won't believe these Wicked Assigations!!

The internet offers both Penny Dreadfuls and quality reading. You pays your money and takes your pick. But back in the day, if you wanted to read serialised Dickens, that would be a shilling to you, guv'nor...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_dreadful

On which, high time to put a few bob in the tips jar, methinks.


Mustard

donalfagan said...

There are lots of ways to design, but my profs liked the idea that we have an initial image in mind of what we were designing. It makes sense that you block out the spaces before detailing the entrance door jamb.

I take the same approach when I write. I usually compose something in my head, write it out, then reread, edit, rinse, and repeat. Sometimes I get new ideas while writing, and expand the original idea. Time just flies by when I'm in that mindset.

Sylvia Rissell said...

Thank you to whoever mentioned Swallows and Amazons. I need to replace my childhood copies!

Edgar Rice Burroughs old fashioned gender politics in his Mars novels contrasts with Robert Heinlin's gender politics in his later science fiction. I used to altenate between them, as Im not sure I considered either one realistic.

I am wondering what sort of novel could be written with a set of female protagonists in the universe of "Lord of the Rings"... All those adventurers, wizards, and rangers and what not must have had a support staff to bake the bread and darn sword-cuts in the cloaks.

Kate Wolfe-Quintero said...

Well the problem with sermons is I don't buy what they're selling, and most are crap quality. But I was looking for a way to describe your genre that makes sense to me as a linguist interested in rhetoric. I feel moved and challenged by your writing. I remember experiencing a few sermons like that as an adolescent, but not many.

However, genre and quality and topic are three different things. My take on your genre is: SERMON. My take on your quality is: MASTER. My take on your choice of topics is: CRITICAL CONTENT. It's quite powerful.

Scotlyn said...

@Dammerung And the satire of the Great who belittle the Little, gets people killed who cannot fight back.

The great Celtic tradition of satire was a way to put a check on the mighty.

When used to "punch down" it is dishonourable & cowardly.

The direction in which a satire is aimed matters.

Scotlyn said...

If I may, I'd like to add my voice to those who say coming here is a pleasure, starting with the post on which to feast, chew, savour, mull, and the congenial, thoughtful, erudite and witty comoany in attendance. I am delighted to meet here people of a diversity of views, some very challenging to mine, which also spurs reflection. The knack of disagreeing, without having to "destroy"* the other person (or their viewpoint), is also an endangered art, which can be and is cultivated here. So, thanks for the whole experience. I cannot apportion how much of the credit is to your writing style and how much to your character and personal qualities, but it works.

*I particularly abhor the meme "X DESTROYS Y" meaning X rebuts Y, usually in a manner that only convinces the already converted, and which is never aimed at opening a dialogue or increasing X and Y's understanding of one another.

Scotlyn said...

The various comments on a mage's open secrets put me in mind of the quote below. Your native Spanish-speaking readers can say how good my translation is.

"Narrar, decía mi padre, es como jugar al póquer, todo el secreto consiste en parecer mentiroso cuando se está diciendo la verdad" Ricardo Piglia

"Storytelling, my father used to say, is like playing poker. The whole secret is to look like you're lying when you're telling the truth." Ricardo Piglia

Chris Larkin said...

Thank you for writing this. I’ve sent it along to a friend who often asks me if this or that trope is okay to add to a work as if there are rigid dos and don’ts. I keep on telling them what matters is if it’s done well.

When it comes to writing and editing and the relationship between rules and taste, I’m reminded of Clausewitz. He wrote things down first and ended up dying quite early in the editing process with only the first section of the first book finished. Despite this, he’s one of the cornerstones of Western strategic thought. It’s a common refrain of most successful writers I’ve come across which is to “Get it down!”

Secondly Clausewitz discusses in On War, trying to divide study from doctrine which seems appropriate here. The latter are sets of rules that would make Mrs. McNitpick (or Col. McNitpick as it were) proud while the other is to expose though both experience and history to understand the different forms of war, learn the basics, and to use all of it as a guide rather than a schedule.

For the charges of arrogance, it’s easy to read many of your statements especially pedagogical ones in a condensing tone. I try not to read it that way since internet writing tends to make everything come off harsher than intended. However if one is already in a disagreeable mood, that reading would give a sense of excessive pride.

David, by the lake said...

John-

This is more on the reading, rather than writing, side of things. Our local library is open for a couple of mid-day hours (10-2) on Saturdays. Today, I went and spent about an hour, sitting by the fireplace (very nice this time of year) and reading through a number of small local weekly and semi-weekly papers which cover the surrounding towns, villages, and neighboring counties. I've decided that I will be making a regular practice of this, as it is a good way to stay abreast of local happenings as well as situational awareness (and context) with respect to my own community's issues. We do not have a dedicated paper for our town, though there is a Gannette-owned paper which serves the county and is run out of the larger city (and county seat) just down the road. I wonder if a local weekly would nonetheless be viable. I'll tuck that idea away for future reference.

In other local political news, the spring ballot has been set. There are four candidates running for three seats on the city council, so my odds are fairly good, and in the random name-drawing for ballot position, I came out in the second spot (not a bad place to be, I think). As we get into February, I will nevertheless be ramping up the campaign as I will be taking no chances in terms of getting my name out there, which gives about a two-month window (the election being April 4th).

Ed-M said...

JMG,

Yeah, I noticed! :D

PatriciaT said...

1)Re: Fantasy, I found the following book to be a great collection of stories (a wonderful introduction to the genre) 'Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy' (Douglas A. Anderson, Editor). Easy to find online, maybe bookstores.

2)@ Peter VE (1/6/17, 3:07 PM) Thank you for responding to Crow Hill's comment about his friend and her Kindle. You gave a clear and concise explanation of the environmental impact of these devices (which show electronic facsimiles) vs. real books.

3)In 9th grade, I had a great English teacher. For example, in teaching poetry, the students would read poetry of a certain style and then learn the structure; following this we wrote poetry of that particular - then she would grade the poetry, giving clear & helpful corrections/suggestions/encouragement. Drama became alive (as it should be) we read (out loud & to ourselves) then saw a film of the play 'Romeo and Juliet'; following that, students formed groups to write & produce their own, and critique plays of the other student groups. Great class. Sadly, a few years later we moved & Mrs. McNitpick was the English teacher and some great literature became hateful to me. 'MacBeth' was read aloud in class and analyzed to death. Grammar was flayed alive and left to rot. I don't think I ever recovered... Writing, always a challenge for me, wasn't helped because in my professional life I did a lot of editing.

John Michael Greer said...

Rita, yes, and think about the kind of stunningly dull writing that you get by following those rules. I hope everyone who has to teach them to their children turns around and says, "But that's just for school, because those tests are too stupid to understand anything else. Now let's talk about real writing."

Robert, thank you! Somewhere in the process of obsessively rereading Lovecraft's stories to get details for The Weird of Hali, I noticed just how many of his plots revolve around a woman, usually a female ancestor, who isn't what she appears to be, on the one hand, and forbidden intermarriages on the other. The latter's a theme I'm picking up, in a wry way, in my novels -- did you know that Charles Dexter Ward had a secret romance and marriage with an African-American woman? Neither did his family, or Lovecraft for that matter... ;-)

Given the frequency with which light-skinned people of African descent relied on "passing" to advance socially in pre-1960s America -- cue that old jazz classic On the Sunny Side of the Street -- it struck me that the most likely explanation for those paired fixations was something in Lovecraft's genealogy that You. Did. Not. Talk. About. I didn't know, though, that it's particularly appropriate to Providence history! That's worth knowing.

Cherokee, it's a very solid dark ale. I hope your wife has a taste for stouts, porters, and other real beer!

Mustard, I don't speak internet, so somebody else will have to pursue that idea. As for penny dreadfuls, though, my youthful fascination with monsters led me to the perfervid pages of Varney the Vampire, or, The Feast of Blood, which the Burien, WA public library had in a sturdy Dover Publications reprint -- as dreadful a dreadful as was ever sold for a penny an episode. That led to others; so, yes, my youthful imagination was partly corrupted by penny dreadfuls -- though they had a lot of competition, of course.

Donalfagan, interesting. That makes sense.

Sylvia, I could see a really fascinating novel coming out of that latter suggestion!

Kate, thank you! Yes, I see your point. The classical Stoic diatribe might be another comparable genre.

Scotlyn, thank you. I like to mentally edit the term "destroy," when used in the manner you've indicated, by replacing it with "annoy." That's usually all that takes place, after all.

Chris, hmm! I hadn't thought of Clausewitz in that context, but you're right. Half the reason the Confederacy survived as long as it did during the Civil War was that nearly all the Union generals early on thought they could fight battles by the rulebook, while the most important Confederate generals knew otherwise. It wasn't until Grant and Sherman rose to command armies that the Union forces weren't being led by Gen. McNitpick, and once that happened the end came pretty quickly.

David, glad to hear it. The reading will also give you plenty of ammunition for blog posts, letters to editors, and other publicity for your campaign, showing that you're up on the issues that matter to locals and have positive proposals for how to deal with those.

PatriciaT, I'll have to check out that anthology; my pre-Tolkien fantasy is mostly in old Ballantine Books editions, from the glorious days when Lin Carter was resurrecting the entire genre from oblivion.

Justin said...

Scotlyn, lets not forget the story of the 400 lb hacker who said "the empress has no pantsuit"

Justin said...

Sylvia, the female protagonists thing would be pretty funny. The sort-of-funny parody 'Bored of the Rings' managed to cram the bare bones plot of the Lord of the Rings into a rather slim volume, so a parody or spin on Tolkien need not take up three volumes.

Although I will have to try again one of these days with Tolkien - even though I was a voracious reader as a teenager, Tolkien felt a little light on plot and long on prose. I'll have to try again though.

latheChuck said...

JMG - There have been times when I thought you had "used more words than necessary", and there are times when I've looked at a fine old brick building and observed an arched window and border of diagonally-laid bricks which were also more bricks than necessary. And that's part of the charm.

(The Wikipedia entry for "decorative brickwork" has examples.)

(Any allusions to magic/charm and masons/bricks are no less coincidence than usual.)

Patricia Mathews said...

The Confederacy had all the foxes, didn't it? Perhaps because the Union had no immediate need for tacticians? There was a very impressive scene in that old PBS series on the Civil War with Lincoln sitting up by lamplight trying to teach himself enough about military strategy to hold off the South until he could get some generals who knew their stuff. And the famous story when one of the General McNitpick's complained about Grant's drinking. Lincoln famously said "Get me a keg of his whiskey and serve to to all my other generals." Or words to that effect.

latheChuck said...

Daelach - Speaking of history, and writing about history, I recommend James W. Loewen's 1995 book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History textbook got wrong".

The chapter on The First Thanksgiving is worth the price of admission. "Helpful Native American Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to survive in the wilderness", right? Did you ever wonder how it was that they communicated well enough to get the job done? It helped that Squanto had been kidnapped and lived in England for nine years. Why did he help the Pilgrims? Without the Pilgrims, he could have tried to live alone, but the rest of his tribe had been wiped out by an epidemic. And as for that "wilderness", it was the farmed land of his tribe, laying fallow in their absence.

I'll leave the chapter entitled "Progress is our Most Important Product" to be discovered through individual reading.

If this is true and honest American History, I can see why George Washington U. no longer requires its History majors to take a class in American History in order to graduate. I'm sure everyone there is more comfortable critiquing the bloody history of some other parts of the world.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- Indeed! I figure if you are getting your words onto anything that can be considered a "page" and they are finding any thing that can be considered an "audience" that appreciates them, ya done something right. Since my primary occupation in the last decade is as the "unpaid" half of the single income household, and I now earn enough from the monthly gig that I am supposed to tell Uncle Sam about it, I now get to put "Writer" on our tax return as my main job. I like that.

Esn said...

@Toomas,
Thanks for the courteous reply. A few notes:

"I propose to publish all submitted comments without censorship, provided they disclose within their body text the writer's e-mail address, name, and municipality-plus-country of residence (yours did not)"

Well... then it's okay if you don't publish it... the thing is, when ALL Canadian federal, provincial AND municipal politicians are entirely one-sided on the Russian/Ukraine issue, I don't feel comfortable allowing my name to be publicly linked to comments against it, no matter how mild my comments are. I feel a bit paranoid, and feel that someone would have said something if there weren't consequences for speaking about it.

Regarding propaganda, I think that your 2nd type (reporting truthfully, but leaving out the full truth) currently predominates, both in corporate and state-funded media. The common technique is to be neutral in tone and not neutral at all in content. This takes the form of
a) simply not reporting information that doesn't fit the wanted narrative, and
b) giving lots of space and analysis to any story that even mildly supports the wanted narrative (often across multiple channels at once), even if it's based on poor sourcing.
In this second case, one likely sign that it really IS intentional propaganda and not simply clumsiness is that there are no follow-up reports on the findings of any journalists that find the information to be false or misinterpreted (this is precisely why I like reading so-called small "Alternative Media" - a lot of them will dig into and find flaws in MSM news stories, which the MSM themselves rarely correct)

In general, I often prefer reading biased authors that admit their bias/passion upfront (or where it's pretty clear) -- it means that I know what to watch out for, and also on which subjects they will probably be fair writers, as they have no skin in the game.

For example, there's a free newspaper here in Toronto called "The Epoch Times", funded by an anti-Chinese Communist Party religious group. In every issue, they have an essay about the evils of the CPP. On other topics, though, they tend to write competently and in a refreshingly agenda-free manner (perhaps veering a little on the New Agey side with their science reporting).

For some topics like the Syrian Civil War, or Ukrainian conflict, nearly everyone is either biased or biased but pretending to be neutral. In those cases, I prefer to read openly-biased and close-to-the-ground accounts from as many sides as I can find, as they actually tend to be more truthful than the more "neutral" stories which tend to have the more egregious propaganda. The more close-to-the-ground sources sometimes discount their own side's propaganda as well as the other side's.

For example, for the Ukrainian conflict, one could read the interview of Dmytro Yarosh, former Right Sector leader (far right nationalist paramilitary) on Censor, in which he openly tells of how acting Ukrainian president Turchinov secretly ordered him to start the first battle of the war: http://censor.net.ua/resonance/385673/dmitro_yarosh_pershiyi_nastupalniyi_byi_vyini_vdbuvsya_20_kvtnya_2014go_dobrovolts_atakuvali_blokpost
(the government had originally denied the incident for over a year, and all the Western MSM I saw almost always reported on only their claims about the conflict -- meeting your second definition of propaganda)

And on the other hand, if one follows Colonel Cassad (who calls his blog "The Totalitarian Propaganda Mouthpiece" right on the banner), one finds discussion about the "Northern Wind" (secret Russian support for the Donbass rebels) and interviews with Igor Strelkov in which the latter openly discusses how he gathered Crimean volunteers who then led a vanguard and organized battles in places where Donbass locals originally didn't want to fight (and in later interviews, more and more openly criticizes Putin for not supporting decisive war).

Scotlyn said...

@Justin "[would be] empress" I think you'll find. ;) Yes, punching "up" is what satire is for.

However, sometimes an actual "[would be] empress" is not handy and so you and your three mates find a run-of-the-mill female politician to beat up, and then you, or your fan club, generate a popular hashtag #GolpearMujeresEsFelicidad (Beating Women is Happiness).


https://www.buzzfeed.com/krishrach/people-started-sharing-beatingwomenishappiness-after-a-gang?utm_term=.xhXGWen9B#.xtYRjqyb3

Where does such a dishonourable action, and supporting meme spring from, and how does it gain currency?

I can't help recalling the meme factory Dammerung described busying itself on /pol/ with the task of giving impetus and power to "edgy" ideas and launching them into the mainstream.

I can't help wondering if this hashtag is among its "results" and if many more people who cannot fight back will die of encounters with packs of cowards successfully recruited to the service of such "edgy" ideas.

Damaris Zehner said...

Mr. Greer:

May I copy and use this article (with attribution) for the creative writing class I teach? My community college students are as badly scarred by bad teaching and lack of access to good books as any. What you've written -- and the unique and idiosyncratic way you've written it (!) -- would be helpful to them.

I just finished the printed copy of Retrotopia, by the way, and loved it all over again. I actually bought it for a Christmas present for my husband and daughter, but they didn't read it fast enough, so I borrowed it back. I'm very grateful for your writing.

Crow Hill said...

JMG, Peter VE, Patricia T: Thank you for your feedback.

pygmycory said...

It's a bit off-topic for this week, but there's some interesting and alarming things going on with criminalizing dissent in the USA recently.
http://theantiglobalist.com/state-senator-slams-george-soros-and-wants-to-charge-protesters-as-economic-terrorists/

http://www.chronline.com/lawmakers-express-mixed-reactions-on-economic-terrorism-legislation/article_b412c338-ae10-11e6-98e9-77d9eb7c5fcc.html

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Had to laugh when I read a reference to the works of Mr Stephen Donaldson. I may have mentioned a long time ago to you that he was the author that taught me the lesson that it is OK to put down a book before completing it, even if you are on the sixth book in a series. Get thee to an opportunity shop, Mr Donaldson's work! ;-)! That final book in the series was a difficult read and I always felt that the author was emotionally tortured in the process of writing it.

Incidentally, I often ignore the grammar checker and tend to use the Australian spelling for words. The grammar checker is a tool to homogenise writing styles and to be honest, sometimes it is basically incorrect in its advice.

As to the dark ales, stouts etc. Well, we shall see as we're going right back to the basics - which is always a good place to start given the amount of disinformation floating around. We came across a fascinating dark ale recently - really dark and heavy - that was spiced with exotic spices called: Gingerbread Maniac. It was very good, and how can anyone not enjoy a beer label that shows a maniacal gingerbread man wielding (not white gold!) a blooded gingerbread chainsaw! Too good.

Cheers

Chris

latheChuck said...

I know it's getting a little late in the new year for predictions, but one "establishment baseline" perspective on the next 20 years can be found at http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/publications/reports/global-risks-2035. There's an 86-page PDF to download for free. I don't think anything in it will startle readers of this blog, but the overall tone is one of challenges, rather than predicaments. In particular, awareness of the declining availability of cheap energy is not visible in the overview pages (which is as much as I have read).

goedeck said...

Using creativity while still following rules and guidelines reminds me of Thelonius Monk's application of both in his music. Here's drummer Frankie Dunlop from an interview:

Before all of the solos and all the rudiments and flashy throwing sticks up in the air and all that, which is good, but the main thing is what's keeping -and this is one of the things I loved about Monk, what he used to say -, keep the time. He said if you're going to do something make sure you can do it within the meter.

I also found this quote from Monk:

I say, play your own way. Don't play what the public want? You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you doing? even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.

However,Monk opined: At this time the fashion is to bring something to jazz that I reject. They speak of freedom. But one has no right, under pretext of freeing yourself, to be illogical and incoherent by getting rid of structure and simply piling a lot of notes one on top of the other. There's no beat anymore. You can't keep time with your foot. I believe that what is happening to jazz with people like Omette Coleman, for instance, is bad. There's a new idea that consists in destroying everything and find what's shocking and unexpected; whereas jazz must first of all tell a story that anyone can understand.

Note: I wrote this out with pen before transcribing to blog bytes. Also, hammered this out on a phone,so justification may not be perfect :)

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Tomuru--The first time I read Lord of the Rings, I thought that the first few chapters were boring. My recollection is that the story did not start to get interesting until the travelers arrive at the Inn at Bree. This is not unusual in novels that begin at the beginning rather than dropping you into the middle of the action and requiring the reader to figure out what's going on through hints or gradual reveals.

Sometimes this is an intentional stylistic choice because the author wants the reader to be familiar with the characters and the setting before getting very far into the plot. In other instances, it just takes the novelist a while to hit his stride.

What you consider flowery language is intentional and one of the reasons that I've reread LOTR and not read George Martin's magnum opus even once. The Lord of the Rings contains characters, settings and situations that derive from a pile of
European myths, romances, fairy tales and heroic tales that go back before the Christian era, and reworkings of those tales from the Middle Ages up through the nineteenth century. The language Tolkien is using is not a direct imitation of any source, but contains echoes and allusions to them. This makes the trilogy very resonant for people who have read some of the older versions of those tales either as children or as adults. If you have never read any of those old tales and the styles of language they were written in, you are going to miss out on part of what Tolkien is doing.

Another part of what he's doing is using these ancient tropes and long-ago-and-far-away setting to deal with contemporary concerns. One is the ruining of ecosystems and the beauty of the natural world by unchecked industrialization in the pursuit of power and profit. A second theme is political--why other nations failed to stop the rise of Hitler, and the general difficulty of getting different nations and factions to recognize real evil and unite to take effective action against it. A third theme is how power corrupts the virtuous. A fourth is the importance of having mercy and compassion for your adversaries, even when they are despicable. Tolkien deals with all these moral themes not by sermonizing but by showing characters making various choices and the consequences.

The story is interesting, the settings are gorgeous and some of the characters are well drawn, but the language and the themes are equally important.

Robert Mathiesen said...

I spent some fun time yesterday poking around in a few genealogical sources that I have access to, and I actually found partial confirmation of your shrewd guess about Lovecraft's ancestry. Here it is, for whatever it may be worth.

HPL's anxiety over "tainted blood" had something to do, of course, with his own father's descent into insanity at a fairly young age.

It also surely had something to do with the fact that his maternal grandparents (Whipple Van Buren Philips and Rhoby Alzada Place) were first cousins. First-cousin marriages have always been legal in Rhode Island, as they are in many states; but in the later 1800s and early 1900s there was a wide-spread theory that first-cousin marriages produced mental degenerates.

But there is more. Before going into the specifics, I should mention that "racial" boundaries in Rhode Island were, until recently, drawn in ways that were somewhat out-of-step with the usual American pattern. There were WASPs, of course, and they formed the top crust of society. Below them (in HPL's day), however, there was just an unstratified mass of non-WASPs: Narragansett "Indians" (and other local Native Americans); African-Americans; Hugenots (French Protestants) and other Protestants from non-English-speaking countries; Irish Catholics (and most other Catholics, for example, Italians); and especially Cape-Verdean Portuguese. The Cape Verdeans often had the skin color of African-Americans, but -- in HPL's day and even as late as the 1970s -- they thought of themselves as wholly White, not Black, since they were Portuguese. Within the state, the Cape-Verdeans didn't get much pushback over their insistence on their Whiteness: since they weren't WASPs, it really didn't matter much to anyone else here how they categorized themselves. This is why I spoke of "an unstratified mass" of non-WASPs in the state.

And -- here is the important point -- in Rhode Island, all these non-WASPs intermarried with one another, amongst themselves, as freely as they cared to, with no social sanctions against their doing so. For example, two close friends of ours, an older couple named Naomi and Horace -- now dead for a decade and more -- appeared Black to the eye, and were highly respected members of the Black community in Providence. However, while Naomi's mother was African-American, her father was wholly Irish. And Horace's ancestry was even more complicated, as his mother was pure Narragansett, while his father's father was African-American and his father's mother was an immigrant from northern Norway, who also had some Saami (Lapp) ancestors among her Norwegian ones.

Coming back now to HPL: his maternal grandparents were first cousins, since their mothers were sisters: Rhoby Alzada (Rathburn) Philips and Sarah (Rathburn) Place. And the Rathburn sisters, Rhoby amd Sarah, have documented Irish ancestry from a great-great-grandfather of theirs named Thomas Casey, who had immigrated from Ireland in the mid-1600s. This was all worked out in a genealogical article published shortly after HPL was born: "Early Families of Casey in Rhode Island," The Magazine of New England History, 3(1893). Doubtless HPL had found and read this article in the course of his own extensive historical and genealogical research.

What the article doesn't make entirely clear is the ancestry of the spouses of Thomas Casey's various descendants down to the generation of Rhoby and Sarah Rathburn. It is inherently unlikely, given Rhode Island marriage customs, that all of them were WASPs. Some of them certainly might have been African-American or Native American. And Rhoby Alzada's odd given names sound quite "un-WASP-y": Alzada might have suggested to HPL something Spanish or Portuguese in her ancestry. In any event, his documented Irish ancestry was already enough, in HPL's eyes, for him to think that his own blood was "tainted."

So your hunch was pretty solidly on target.

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