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My Approach to Writing

Posted by on Thursday, 18 April, 2013

I’m writing a fairly long piece of documentation at work right now, and I’ve just come to realize how many of the lessons from English class I violate when I write. Thinking about it more, I’m intrigued by the idea that these lessons may be rendered obsolete by our modern methods of communicating.

You see, I regularly break the rule of prose where you compose a paragraph of a main idea and supporting arguments. The reason? I’m planning for my work to be scanned, not read closely. So I wonder: how many things do people read in a day where the whole composition is designed to be scanned? How many things still resist this?

The main reason I have to design for scan-ability (if that’s a thing) is that I understand myself well enough to know that when I decide to spend time writing something, I want to explain my position as clearly as possible. This leads to some fairly – um, comprehensive – emails and wiki pages. Long documents make it easy for others to miss what I consider the salient points. I hate being misunderstood, because it seems like once it’s missed you never recapture the opportunity to get your point across as clearly or forcefully. I really think about these things.

I’m unwilling to make bald assertions, as I think this is one of the worst habits in modern communication…largely because it’s so seldom detected. At the same time, I understand the real risk of drowning my reader in details and having the main point I’m trying to make wash past unrecognized. Maybe it’s a consequence of slowing coming to need eyeglasses, where I’ve come more and more to rely on scanning for visual breaks to extract useful information. Or, maybe it’s the fact that I’m a programmer, and used to hunting for hours for a missing semicolon. Whatever the reason, I’ve noticed that I’m a fairly visual person, and the simple act of letting a small statement stand completely naked on the page makes it stand out.

So, I often leave my main points standing alone, as one-word sentences.

They’re not really headings, though I do group my smaller points together under headings (not in email…yikes). I’d equate them more closely with all those sidebars you see in magazines where they cherry-pick a quote and almost make it into a graphic. The idea is that if someone is just scanning my work, these short, choppy little visual breaks will draw the eye, and they’ll come away with the point I want to get across (even if they’re not interested in knowing why I think what I wrote). It’s like a hybrid between prose and poetry. Not that I think I’m a poet! Rather, that poetry uses meter and other devices that show up visually and create effects way beyond the concepts contained in the words. But in an age where a person cannot hope to read all the things online that he finds interesting, I do wonder:

How much do people adjust their writing styles to support scanning?