Writing Right with Dmitri: Direct Download?
'When you've been in marketing as long as I have, you'll know that before any new product can be developed it has to be properly researched. We’ve got to find out what people want from fire, how they relate to it, what sort of image it has for them.'
(Ford Prefect) 'Go stick it up your nose.'
' Which is precisely the sort of thing we need to know. Do people want fire that can be fitted nasally?'
You Know Who
Recently, somebody stuck a wannabe-entry into Peer Review with the proposal that the future of communication lay in a technology that would allow people to 'think' their thoughts online. The 'entry' was rejected on two grounds: one, it was obviously plagiarised from another source, and two, the idea was a load of dingo's kidneys. The fact that such a concept could be thought at all, let alone put into words, is probably the fault of bad online communicators. Whose offensive habits I will now discuss at length.
SashaQ read that PR entry and commented, 'Bad idea.'
I replied, more or less, that the filter between thought and utterance is what we call writing.
True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.
The internet has made it easier for people to type things into boxes. It hasn't made writing any easier, but it has multiplied the number of people who think they're writing.
- 'I'm a really good writer, but I can't be bothered to learn all those conventions about grammar and punctuation. Let the reader figure it out.'
- 'I'm a great writer. I don't need to read other writers: they only interfere with my creative flow.'
- 'I have so many good ideas, I astonish myself. I don't need to polish or rewrite. It just comes naturally.'
- 'Why should I work on my writing? What I really need is better publicity. If I advertise enough, people will find out I'm the greatest thing since sliced bread.'
- 'Oh, you know what I mean. Don't tell me to reword that.'
Was not said by any working writer, ever.
Remember the people of Kakrafoon?
The Belcerebon people of Kakrafoon used to cause great resentment and insecurity among neighboring races by being one of the most enlightened, accomplished and, above all, quiet civilizations in the Galaxy. As a punishment for this behavior, which was held to be offensively righteous and provocative, a Galactic Tribunal inflicted on them the most cruel of all social diseases, telepathy.
Consequently, in order to prevent themselves broadcasting every slightest thought that crossed their minds to anyone within a five mile radius, they now had to talk very loudly and continuously about the weather, their little aches and pains, the match this afternoon and what a noisy place Kakrafoon had suddenly become.
Yeah, You Know Who
Now, notice two things about Douglas Adams' story here. One is the idea: telepathy might not be such a good thing. Think about how much you hate being nattered at by your mindlessly chatty neighbour or over-sharing workmate, or even and especially, gawd help us, the president of the United States. The other thing you notice is how well the author has expressed this idea.
- He put it succinctly. It took work to make that idea clear in two paragraphs.
- He made it part of a witty story. He just made that planet up, you know. It wasn't there before.
- He told just enough to start that reader thinking.
These things don't just happen, just as sitting down to a piano and randomly striking keys doesn't result in a concerto. You can no more accidentally write a meaningful book than you can accidentally create a musical masterpiece. No matter how many software engineers tell you so.
We should be glad the Creator gave us speech and writing instead of telepathy. We don't want to inflict raw data dumps on each other. Back in the mid-1970s, Elektra and her colleagues at the NASA spinoff company used to broker information from the big databases. It was a very big deal then, because Google hadn't been invented yet. They had to learn Boolean operators and such. If they did it wrong and hit the Return button, catastrophe occurred in the form of a literal data dump. The machine in the other room would start spitting out reams and reams of that folded paper with the little holes down both sides. A really, really bad question could result in several pounds of paper, which was a heavy load even in the metric system.
They had to learn how to refine their searches. That's how we got Google. But that's also how we learn to write.
You know that old story about Michelangelo's David? That he bought a block of Carrara marble, and then chipped off everything that wasn't David? Writing is like that. Nobody wants the raw contents of our unconscious. They want a guide to thought in the form of a poem, a story, an essay, or similar. You don't believe me? Read this:
I don't know. I didn't even get a look. I don't know who can have done it. Anybody. Kindly take my shoes off. (He was told that they were off.) No. There is a handcuff on them. The Baron says these things. I know what I am doing here with my collection of papers. It isn't worth a nickel to two guys like you or me but to a collector it is worth a fortune. It is priceless. I am going to turn it over to... Turn you back to me, please Henry. I am so sick now. The police are getting many complaints. Look out. I want that G-note. Look out for Jimmy Valentine for he is an old pal of mine. Come on, come on, Jim. Ok, ok, I am all through. Can't do another thing. Look out mamma, look out for her. You can't beat him. Police, mamma, Helen, mother, please take me out. I will settle the indictment. Come on, open the soap duckets. The chimney sweeps. Talk to the sword. Shut up, you got a big mouth! Please help me up, Henry. Max, come over here. French-Canadian bean soup. I want to pay. Let them leave me alone.
From the transcript of The Last Words of Dutch Schultz1, as taken down by a police stenographer.