Thursday, 8 April 2010

Writing in words

P. Kurp provides us with a quotation (concerning Emerson), which chimes with something I've just read. First, the quotation:
“Choosing words and using words are the central inescapable acts of writing. `No man can write well who thinks there is any choice of words for him. [By choice here Emerson means a group of acceptable words, any one of which he could choose.] The laws of composition are as strict as those of sculpture and architecture. There is always one right line that ought to be drawn or one proportion that should be kept and every other line or proportion is wrong….So in writing, there is always a right word, and every other that is wrong.’”

Alan Watkins talking of the Conservative politician who was his editor at The Spectator:
Not that [Iain] Macleod wrote as politicians customarily do. Real writers write in words; most literate people in ready-made blocks of words; and politicians, commonly, in whole prefabricated sentences or sometimes paragraphs.

(Watkins, by the way, writes in words).

We can look forward to a lot of prefabricated language being lobbed our way over the next month. The stuff we heard at the parties' election launches reminded me of that interlocking styrofoam you get packed around electrical goods: it all fitted together neatly and was cautiously protective but it had no interesting features; but it encased little of any value. Unfortunately, it seems we have very few people in the front rank of politics who betray a liking for language for its own sake. I guess saying something interesting or striking is thought of as too risky a pursuit.

However, two politicians who do follow Macleod - both journalists - are Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, with the latter having more access to what might be the 'right word' (if not always the correct one) than any of us could ever hope. I don't think it's a coincidence that they've both had rapid rises, are highly influential and tipped to progress further.

The 'right word' and an original turn of phrase may be riskier tools of communication than standard-issue verbal styrofoam - and, by their nature, impossible to pre-test with a focus group - but they're still of political use. I just wish we heard more of it.

BTW 'The Great Ignored'. I hope Gove didn't come up with that one - a bit bathetic, if not silly. Sounds like the fat boy no-one liked at school. And I wonder what the overlap is with an even more disregarded group 'The Great Unwashed'?


Sean said...

Why is it silly Garth? how many times do you hear about politics "they do what they want to do anyway"

It sits nicely with the idea that our votes don't matter. i doubt Gove came up with it, its straight out of a focus group, but its far from an insincere emotion.

Back to your Ivory tower, I am sure Obama will be along soon to soothe your thirst with a few words from his telepromter or text book.

Brit said...

It's true that good writers convey a sense that each word is the only possible correct one, even though another good writer could use an entirely different set of words and convey the same sense.

I wonder if the ability to write well and without obfuscation can sometimes be itself an obfuscation, however. eg. Chris Hitchens and Martin Amis write as much twaddle as sense, but always convincingly. Whereas Immanuel Kant was smarter than either but couldn't write for toffee.

Gaw said...

A bit paranoid and ad hominem there, Sean. I think the phrase is silly it's because if there's anyone who has been pandered to in recent elections it's the list Cameron provided. They're the 'hard-working families' everyone claims to represent. Pretending that they've been ignored is ridiculous (whether this attention has had a wholly positive outcome is a different matter). But, I do understand how the politics of grievance would appeal to you.

Anyway I hope you're having a sunny day in the hell-hole that is Bakewell - keep it real, eh?

Brit: I'm not sure. If good = accurate and transparent can good writing be used to obfuscate? Only if the one can only ever equal the other, which obviously isn't right as we know from our reading. Perhaps if we limit this rule to political language it can be allowed? Interesting subject which probably deserves a lot more thought than we can give it here.

Sean said...

The sun is out, the shorts are on, Andrew Sullivan is having a big car crash about the Catholic Church, no amount of Politicos on the box can wipe the smile off my face today Garth, even watching Bam give in to Russian grievances in order to pretend he has a credible policy to Iran is not going to shift my fat lazy arse out of the desert of the real.


Vern said...

I think elberry's in love.

zmkc said...

Poor fat boy at school - I hope his mother was kind to him.

Gadjo Dilo said...

That Emerson quote was pretty much what I was told when I started work as a technical writer several moons ago. I was surprised as I'd assumed that 'correct writing' was no more than a concensus opinion among those in the business, but it seemed that the boss was expecting us to strive towards some Platonic Ideal, which was rather pleasing and motivating though difficult to bring off.

Gaw said...

Vern: I wonder what on earth could have given you that impression! I'm bracing myself for developments...

z: It was his mother's excessive kindness (in donuts and not pushing him out in the rain) that led to his obesity.

Gadjo: Sounds interesting and satisfying. I did some copywriting in my younger days and did enjoy it.