Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bringing Back Bombast

It is with a sense of certain unease, which nevertheless is not devoid of being tinged with a pleasurable kind of nostalgia, that I am honoring my promise to Pagan Topologist, an esteemed and valued commenter of this blog, to resuscitate - albeit for a short time - my erstwhile florid writing style. Any complaints about the unexpectedly convoluted nature of my sentences in this post should be addressed to Pagan Topologist whose impressive contribution to my blog deserves of being honored in this manner.

As reluctant as I am to accept the existence of any universal truths, the fact that every language has a philosophy all its own is, indeed, such a well-known and commonly acknowledged reality. Aspiring writers - especially those whose lack of creative gifts forces them to limit themselves to the realm of non-fictional writing - have no choice but to undertake a search of the specific characteristics of their language's philosophy. Authors like myself who write in a variety of languages on a daily basis are wont to confuse writing philosophies of different languages. To give an example, the kind of bombast that characterizes written communications in Spanish is often likely to disappoint those who expect a different kind of writing style from an author expressing herself in English.

Many an author has given into temptation to believe that having mastered a good writing style in one language he or she only needs to transfer these hard-won skills into another tongue they want to adapt to their writing. Would that it were so! The sad realization that, as much as I might want to continue writing the way I did for years and the way I am doing right now for the limited purposes of this post, doing so on a regular basis will provoke nothing but a bout of uproarious - and might I say, well-deserved - laughter on the part of my readers.

As bad luck might have it, clarity and brevity - the hallmark features of a good writing style in English - are incompatible with complex, long sentences with multiple subordinate clauses, as well as with florid introductory statements that are used to link one sentence to another. Nowadays, the common attitude to writing is that if your second draft is not at least 60% shorter than your first draft, you have sadly failed as a writer. The fear of wordiness that haunts every student of good writing style in English frequently leads aspiring authors to employ the so-called staccato way of expressing themselves in writing. This style is characterized by short, clipped statements devoid of anything that can be perceived as excessively florid by stern critics. To counteract this issue that has plagued many a gifted young author, a suggestion is often made that students of writing alternate longer sentences with shorter ones according to a certain pattern. For instance, authors are exhorted to arrange their texts in keeping with the following model: two long sentences, one short, three long, two short, one long, one short, etc. Needless to say, such attempts at good writing frequently produce tortured texts that never fail to betray the degree of painful effort that went into their making.


Anonymous said...

I have only recently started reading your blog, and I see I have been missing out. Thank you, Pagan Topologist! Incidentally, there are those that would argue that the types of rules you reference (in English anyway, I can't speak for Spanish) are bogus now that writing in English is no longer the preserve of monolingual English speakers with fastidious styles, but rather expanding in glorious ways for global use. Personally, I think this post is perfectly clear, rather than convoluted. It's your blog, so you can write as you like!

Clarissa said...

Thank you, friend! I have had this kind of writing beaten out of me in grad school. Now, I'm so terrified of writing a long sentence that I will surely have nightmares after writing this post. :-)

Richard said...

I would defend complex sentence structure. The writers of the Federalist Papers did not avoid a complex sentence when it was needed to express to express a complex thought. Yet the papers as a whole are very clear compositions. This is because Hamilton, Madison and Jay used unambiguous and unpretentious English in composing their respective essays. As a result their sentences may be long and complex, but they are also straight forward with clear meanings. There is nothing wrong with using complex sentences as long as such usage does not reflect muddled and unclear thinking. The lost art of sentence diagramming demonstrates that a complex sentence full of subordinate clauses may be the clearest way to express an idea.

el said...

Have I understood correctly and this post is an example of normal writing in Spanish? If so, where is Russian between those 2 extremes (Spanish bombcast vs English brevity)?

Clarissa said...

I'd say that Russian is somewhere between English and Spanish in that respect.

Pagan Topologist said...


Thank you!!

The rules in the last paragraph are uncomfortably close in complexity to the rules for writing a sestina, something with which I never intend to offend.

But I admit, I do enjoy reading this sort of prose.

Tahnks again.


Pagan Topologist said...

Ummm. Make that 'Thanks.' I really need to synchronize my left and right fingers!

Pagan Topologist said...

By the way, I will be very eager to hear what you have to say about Tom Robbins' novels if you have the time and inclination to read some of them. He writes in this sort of style, I think, and I love his novels, especially the two I mentioned before.

Clarissa said...

Thank you, David!

I just bought Jitterbug Perfume on Kindle and I'll publish a review as soon as I finish it.

Lindsay said...

These are really good points, Clarissa. Even though English is my native language (well, as much as someone whose thoughts aren't made of words at all can *have* a native language), I've had to make a similar change from long, meandering sentences full of colorful metaphors and expressions to a shorter, clearer type of sentence.

I know that on my blog, I am always trying to pare away whatever excess complexity I find I can dispense with --- especially in my technical posts about biology, physiology, neuroscience or autism research.

That's more a deliberate choice I made than an artifact of training, though (though I have *definitely* experienced that, too --- having my professors cross out all sorts of clauses that I thought were necessary to make a sentence hang together!): since my readership includes a lot of people with various developmental or cognitive disabilities, and since the stuff I choose to write about can be hard even for very intelligent laypeople to understand, I try to write as simply and as clearly as I can, and to use as few generally-unfamiliar technical terms as I think I can get away with without sacrificing meaning.

(In comments sections, though, I still embrace the long, rambly, one-sentence paragraph! --- see Exhibit A above)