Saturday, September 2, 2017

Disruptive Writing Style

In the pursuit of science, under whose umbrella I consider all intellectually rigorous activity to fall, the formulation and communication of ideas are critical. Here, I'll outline aspects of my own attitude to scientific communication.

In an earlier post on jargon, I advocated against over reliance on familiar terminology, as this can often give a false impression of understanding. I recommended occasionally throwing out unusual pieces of vocabulary, in the hope of ensuring that one's audience is engaged in the concepts, and not just semi-consciously following the signposts. This technique is a significant part of a communication strategy we might call 'disruptive writing style.'

When I say disruptive, I'm not talking about the content of an essay, article, speech, or whatever. I don't mean that the matter under discussion is disruptive, the way the birth of digital electronics represented a disruptive technology. Instead, I'm talking about the vehicle by which one conveys one's ideas to a wider appreciation. I'm talking about a style that occasionally strives to prevent the smooth progress of the reader (or listener) from beginning to end of your piece, in order to ensure that your thesis is being taken in.

Now, there are obviously good ways and bad ways of being disruptive, and in proposing a disruptive style, it is important to try to identify what it is that makes a disruption constructive. Clearly, anything that makes a piece of writing harder to read ought to be carefully justified. When colleagues send me drafts of articles for comment, I often advise them to remove small elements that seem to interrupt the smooth flow of the text, so what is the difference between these elements and what I consider to be part of a good disruptive style?

In general, we can say that any effective disruptive element should add something, in terms of focusing the mind of the reader, or bringing a new perspective, and hence better understanding. There are a number of devices that can achieve such goals, examples of which I'll give shortly.

By corollary, anything that stops the reader in his or her tracks without satisfying either of these criteria should probably be avoided. Such things are likely to achieve nothing more than to serve as distractions. Examples of such distractions might be a word used in genuinely the wrong place, such that its meaning is distinct from what was intended. In such cases, the best that can happen is that the reader recognises the mistake and is quickly able to substitute the intended meaning and continue reading. Possibly, such a reader is left with a slightly diminished opinion of the writer's level of concentration while they were writing. In a worse case, the reader may be unable to unambiguously reconstruct what the writer had in mind, which might dilute the message or, worse still, leave the reader feeling generally confused.

Other examples of badly flowing text might include poor grammar, that fails to pin down unambiguously the meaning of the text, or prevents the reader from effortlessly interpreting what is written. In this regard, it is worth noting that a piece of writing can sometimes be made to flow better by deliberately violating the accepted rules of grammar. Remember that the ultimate goal is not adherence to the rules, but readability and ease of understanding.

As a final example, one thing that disturbs me, as a reader, is redundancy. This is presumably because I often have too much respect for the writer, taking seriously the proposition that each word in the text is there for a reason. As a writer, however, my ideal reader will have some of this respect for me, and I like my writing style to reflect this. When I encounter redundancy, I often get the feeling that there is something that I'm not understanding. For instance, a very popular phrase in scientific discussion is 'dynamic range.' When I traverse a phrase like this, I'm left wondering why the word 'dynamic' is there. What was the writer trying to get across to me, that the word 'range' on its own wasn't enough for? What is the additional missing element? Why am I apparently too stupid to be able to see what it means? In truth, there is no intended meaning behind that little 'dynamic' part. The phrase 'dynamic range' has exactly the same meaning as the word 'range' on its own. But in the process of figuring this out, I've forgotten much of what the writer had said beforehand, and will be left with an uneasy feeling as I proceed through the rest.

So lets look at some of the positive elements of the disruptive writing style. Firstly, there is that method I wrote about before, which is to avoid using the same familiar words over and over again. In this case (if the technique is not overused), the available profit may well be an order-preserving function (monotonically rising) of the unusualness of the applied vocabulary. Here is my reasoning for this: if two words are synonymous, but are not commonly used in the same context, one cannot simply invoke a familiar rule that they mean the same thing. One must, instead, recognise that the underlying concept under discussion is adequately described by the two terms in question. This will require a degree of mindfulness concerning the properties of the concept. Thus, the reader is less likely to make it all the way through your treatise with a mere illusion of understanding, brought about through familiarity, but instead, has been forced to engage seriously with the subject matter.

This technique has, in my opinion, a valuable self regulating mechanism, in that the magnitude of the disruptive effect can be expected to grow somewhat in proportion to the extent to which it is needed. The reader who already has a clear understanding of the concepts you are referring to, who instinctively looks behind the veil of words at the core substance of their meaning, is unlikely to have difficulty placing the significance of an unfamiliar metaphor, and will pass through your terminological minefield undisturbed. They may even derive a little unexpected pleasure from the small intellectual kick of being reminded of an obscure connection that they were not directly thinking about at the time.

On the other hand, readers who plan to utilise their conditioned reflex that certain words belong in a discussion of a certain topic to breeze through your piece without much engagement, will probably experience the greatest disruptive impact  from this device. Similarly, the reader who hasn't taken the time to absorb the basic consequences of object X having properties Y and Z, will have more hardship recognising that such-and-such unfamiliar description refers to so-and-so concept. It is in these cases, however, when it would seem to be most necessary to utilise some rhetorical technique to shout to the reader, 'Hey, pay attention, this is important!' The reader who has to work hardest to make the connection between some familiar piece of jargon and your chosen synonym is exactly the person to whom you most need to say, 'OK, hold up a minute, this is an article about such-and-such, pause for a moment and think about what that means.'

Another way to explain why I like to mix up unusual and unexpected terminology is that I feel it helps to steer people (including me, the writer) away from one of the most common forms of intellectual error: the mind-projection fallacy. This is the treacherous tendency to assume that aspects of our models of reality must necessarily be part of reality. By frequently changing the language used to describe key concepts, one is implicitly pointing out that it doesn't matter what we call things, and what we think of them. What matters is what they really are.

Other techniques for arresting your consumers' too-rapid progress through your written product exist. Often, these techniques will combine a double effect of (1) halting, and thereby focussing the reader's attention and upon a key point, creating greater investment in comprehension, while (2) by virtue of the novelty of the delivery method, rendering this key point more memorable.

One possibility to achieve both of these results is through a brief injection humour in an otherwise serious exposition. A joke is often most effective, when one wishes to be taken most seriously. (Conversely, in a work of end-to-end slapstick, a short moment of seriousness can be devastatingly effective.)

A highly flamboyant metaphor can achieve both of these focussing functions, while also capitalising on many of the advantages of the unusual-synonym technique, described above. A little flourish of verbal petals, dripping with imaginative nectar, could be just the thing to fertilize your readers' thoughts with the pollen of your intellectual endeavour.

If looking for other options, note that an unexpected element of foul language might be just the thing to stir up some much-needed shit. This can go a long way towards increasing the half life of your critical notion in the minds of others. If done well, this can be like running a highlighter pen across your text, and saying to the reader, 'even if you remember nothing else, this bit is important.'

Sometimes, pseudo-directly addressing the reader (I'm looking at you, in particular) is an interesting way of bridging the gap between your remote, abstract ideas, and the real world inhabited by your audience. This technique was used to excellent effect in the 2015 movie, 'The Big Short,' about the 2007-2008 financial crisis. By dint of various actors occasionally facing the camera and talking directly to the viewers, this movie does a wonderful job of repeatedly reminding us that 'yes folks, while it sounds fantastic, this insane stuff really did happen!'

In summary, basically anything that constitutes an unexpected departure from your usual writing style can be an effective way to grab some enhanced attention. An unusually short sentence or paragraph, for example, can be a good way to emphasize an important point.

This works.